A 2021 study revealed that the average professional spends an average of 21.5 hours in meetings every week. So meetings must be worth having right? A meta-analysis produced in 2022 looking at over a decade of research showed 90 percent of employees feel meetings are “costly” and “unproductive.” What is the reason behind this disconnect?
When meetings are done well, they lead to increased collaboration, an opportunity to consider different points of view, and quicker decision making. However, the majority of people reading this post will be familiar with what I will refer to as the ‘Meeting Vortex’ - the type of meeting where it seems like the same topics are raised repeatedly with the same responses but no concrete actions at the end of the session. Here is a classic example:
Meeting lead: “So we need to touch base today on how we better define our career pathway for the new xxxx role”
Attendee 1: “I’ve seen this done really well at Company X where they really focussed on specific outcomes and concrete examples”
Attendee 2: “Bob over in accounting uses a fabulous SFIA spreadsheet, makes life a lot easier in my opinion”
Attendee 3: “Let’s all take a step back and think about why we are doing this and what outcomes we are looking to achieve”
Attendee 1: “I agree we really need to focus on the outcomes and value to the employee”
Attendee 2: “Tracy on the cloud engineering team uses the xxx career pathway tool, I wonder if we could adopt that?”
Attendee 3: “We should arrange a brainstorming session to flesh out what we need and how we are going to get there”
Attendee 4: “Is pathway the correct term? It suggests a linear journey which isn’t always the case let’s be honest”
Attendee 5: [SILENCE]
Meeting lead: “well, that has been really helpful, we are over time so let’s break for lunch and pick this up at a later date”
The only real option following this meeting is to reconvene, and perhaps cover the same ground again, as a week and several delivery drama’s later, all attendees have forgotten what was discussed at the original meeting.
There are several things to notice in the above discussion - some people do not contribute at all, others solutionize, and some repeat similar opinions voiced by others in a different way. No conclusion is reached other than to discuss again, dooming the team to have the same conversation at next week’s session.
So how can we avoid entering the vortex?
**Meeting necessity: **Before we look at strategies for successful meetings, it is always worth asking the question of whether it is required in the first place. Straightforward decisions that can be reached quickly via email does not necessarily justify an expensive hour-long session attended by ten people.
Am I required? It is a rare employee indeed who has never attended a meeting where they have wondered why they are there and/or has used the time to ‘multi-task’ (ie, check emails / phone). An efficient organisation encourages challenge when it comes to meeting attendance. This can be as simple as contacting the meeting lead to clarify their expectations of you during the session. If this can’t be articulated, there is a good argument that your attendance may not necessarily be vital.
Facilitation skills: More than asking the question and sitting back, a facilitator needs to be comfortable with breaking the flow of a conversation if they feel like it is becoming circular or the team are going down a rabbit hole. Some facilitators go as far as holding up a paper rabbit diagram to keep the discussions on track!
Definition of done: This term is more commonly used within software development tickets but applies just as well here – what would we like to see by the end of the meeting which deems the session as valuable? Considering this, and documenting and sharing with the team beforehand is even better as it sharpens the focus.
Driving progress: More strategic work such as building capability frameworks or developing target operating models obviously need multiple workshops and sessions to progress and complete – in these instances, action and owner outputs are crucial. What information or inputs are we missing in order to progress a conversation further, and who/how/when can this be achieved? Holding team members (and ourselves) to account on these actions will help to make quicker and more efficient progress.
Pre-meeting prep: Some sessions are scheduled with the intention of getting approval on something, for example a business case or funding for a new initiative. In these instances, and in order to keep the meeting as streamlined as possible, sharing documentation at least two working days ahead of time will allow meeting attendees to review and consider beforehand, avoiding the need for people to spend valuable meeting time sat in silence reading.
Keep it lean: As per Parkinson’s Law, work (and meetings) expand to fill the time allotted for completion. So consider how long a meeting needs to run for, and if in doubt, err on the short side to keep the session focussed.
Wrapping up: Regardless of the meeting length, ensure discipline in stopping the session 5 minutes beforehand to re-cap on what was discussed and agreed, or who has actions to complete ahead of the next session. Documenting and sharing with attendees shortly after the meeting also helps as a reminder and is useful for anyone who was unable to attend.
These guidelines assist in ensuring that meetings are both valuable and worthwhile, helping to avoid the dreaded Meeting Vortex.