Economist John Kenneth Galbraith once said, “Meetings are a great trap. Soon you find yourself trying to get agreement and then the people who disagree come to think they have a right to be persuaded. However, they are indispensable when you don't want to do anything."

Collaboration and telecommunications company Fuze correlated data that shows “15 percent of an organization’s time is spent in meeting." A Bain report echoed these findings. On average, 11 million meetings took place in the US every day in 2015. 

Another study calculates that $37 billion is lost due to unproductive meetings every year. Our estimate, based on the 7 billion meetings in 2014, was that $70 billion was wasted in unproductive meeting time.

No wonder that bookshelves are packed with books trying to tell you how to make those meetings more productive, what tools to use, even proper etiquette. But they all fail to look at changing the “meeting mindset.” 

That's where James Ware's “Making Meetings Matter, How Smart Leaders Orchestrate Powerful Conversations in the Digital Age” comes in.

Making Meeting Matter

James Ware
According to Ware, "the 21 Century is the age of networked knowledge." He believes that the high level of workplace changes over the last decade, demands that leaders change too in order to succeed.

Ware believes there is a fundamental misalignment between Work and Leadership. Much of this stems from the command-and-control leadership so popular in the industrial revolution, which does not suit the digital age. 

The nature of work itself has changed, along with where we work, and how we work. It is this change of work paradigm, and a new digitally native generation joining the workforce — Millennials make up 50 percent of the current US workforce today — that is driving the changes in leadership.

Ware breaks meetings down into 10 different types, each with a specific purpose:

  1. Informing — most common meeting type
  2. Sharing — exchange of ideas
  3. Exploring (brainstorming) — new ideas
  4. Planning — future opportunities and challenges
  5. Problem-solving — a current challenge, root cause analysis, solution testing
  6. Designing — developing new product specifications
  7. Producing — actual work is done in the meeting
  8. Decision-making — group consensus about future actions
  9. Persuading — compelling reasons for change
  10. Inspiring — motivations for a specific goal

Our 2015 Collaborative Strategies' research showed that:

  • 30 percent of the survey respondents spent 20 percent of their time in all meeting types
  • no one spent over 60 percent of their time on any one meeting type
  • 40 percent spent very little time in strategic planning, brainstorming and decision making
  • people spent 30 percent of their time in project planning and status meetings
  • 50 percent of the time people were in problem solving meetings

Making Meeting Better

According to Ware, meetings are run by the 5 P’s: Purpose, participants, process and place and all preceded by preparation. Out of these 5 P's come some best practices for meetings. 

5 P's

Ware offers some tips on getting the right mindset to run — and benefit from — meetings: 

  • The group is smarter than any single individual 
  • Meeting participants can learn and grow (including the leader)
  • Focus on broad goals that everyone agrees with 
  • Respect individual differences, and understand that everyone has their own individual circumstances (this means trying not to put meeting members in difficult circumstances) 
  • Suspend your judgement — listen and understand what others are saying
  • Try to “have the mind of a beginner” — be open and curious, you never know who will have a great idea 
  • Build on agreement and commonality, it is a lot easier to deal with disagreements from a common ground 
  • Leaders are not expected to have all the answers, admit it when you don’t know
  • Meeting leaders should keeps things on track, be firm but flexible
  • Small talk is a quick way of meeting members to establish trust, reach understanding of one and other's circumstances, and to get everyone present and in the moment. This applies even more for distance or distributed meetings
  • A more formalized way to deal with small talk, is designate time for people to check in. The check-in should be short and should describe the individual’s state, and expectations of the meeting
  • It is better to tell stories than overwhelm the meeting with data
  • Since people don’t often read all of the pre-meeting documents, give them time to read a summary document, so everyone can be on the same page (literally) and share a common context when the meeting starts
  • Avoid groupthink. Most people don’t deal well with ambiguity, and will often grasp (too early) at an idea or solution, without enough exploration of the solution space. It is up to you as the leader to prevent this, and keep the group flexible and open to new ideas

Collaboration and Meeting Challenges

All of us have been in meetings that were anything but collaborative. Keep in mind that meetings are only one type of collaboration. 

ITC Services (Dimension Data) recently released its 2016 Connected Enterprise report which highlights a trend I have seen for the last few years. That trend is a shift in focus from technology to human interaction. No more was this more apparent than at the Enterprise Connect conference which took place earlier this month in Orlando, Fla. 

Originally a telecommunications show, then a UC show, the last few years has seen the conference evolve to include more and more talks and vendors focused on collaboration — which is a human behavior not a technology.

Spring CTO and co-founder Octavian Costache discussed meetings in The New York Times Magazine's recent The Work Issue. Costache calls meetings, "thieves of mental freedom." 

Citing venture capitalist Paul Graham, he breaks work populations into two groups on the meeting criteria. The first group is “Managers” — people who require a weekly calendar splotched to saturation with hourly changes of venue and cohort. He contrasts this to “Makers” — those who require longer blocks of uninterrupted time to muse, contemplate the verities and build digital things. 

According to Graham, Makers flourish in four-hour stretches, which "absolutely must – on pain of inhibiting a company’s growth – be kept unblemished by meetings.” But only the product, design and engineering teams at Spring get one day a week of Maker time.

Our own 2015 research at CSI echoed that employees spend 15 percent of their time in meetings every day, with their top three meeting challenges being: 

  1. No clear agenda
  2. Missing or unprepared stakeholders
  3. Rehashing old topics and decisions

A Death of 1000 Cuts

Clearly meetings are a problem, and have been for a long time. But dealing with poor meetings is like dying from the death of 1000 cuts, you get nibbled to death and no one big event triggers behavioral change. 

It is also clear that technology has made the problem worse, not better. The pendulum seem to be swinging towards people rather than technology, and towards behavioral solutions instead of technical ones. This is a positive sign. People are an organization's greatest resource, and focusing on them — who they are, how they work, what they want, how they interact — will improve collaboration and meeting productivity much more than a technology approach.

Although Ware looks at a number of “cool tools” in his book, what I'll walk away with is to adopt a “meeting mindset.”

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