Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, April 15, 2019
I had lunch this week with a pal who was ranting and raving about a conference he attended at which the speaker is telling the group the importance of how to fill out a particular form. My pal raises his hand and asks, “Just curious, sir, what exactly is the purpose of this form?”
So, shortly after that question, two guys with earpieces take this guy outside. Who would have the temerity to ask why? He asked about the “purpose” — and that is management heresy.
The above story leads me to think about how to make meetings more effective. And to that end, I turn to Steven Rogelberg, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina. His book is called “The Surprising Science of Meetings.”
First, he says agendas do nothing for “meeting effectiveness.” Whoa, that is way out of the box. No agenda? Rather he wants the leader to be a “steward of the others’ time.” He says, “If you have an hour-long meeting with 20 people on the phone, nothing good can come of it.” This is well-known science — the dilution effect, also known as I assume the other guy is listening, but I am playing Fortnite. This is the risk of remote meetings, the dialing-in routine. It falls to the leader to move the ball around and “bring people out and into the conversation.” Rogelberg likens that skill to being an air traffic controller. I have a CEO who allows long pauses while he waits for someone to speak up. You know, the “Does anyone have anything else to add?” And in the silence, while you make coffee, the two planes crash into each other because no one wanted to talk first. In the effort to be inclusive and give everyone a chance, the leader can also put everyone to sleep. Silence is not golden. Press on. Ping the attendees on a regular basis — caution with the infamous mute button.
Rogelberg has a clever idea that I do like a lot. Don’t let Outlook default the meeting time. Start the meeting at 12:13 p.m. and have it run 32 minutes. Then stick to it. Start and stop on time.
In the conference room, I am fond of running a meeting by facing the white board and with my back to the group and I start to write and talk at the same time, periodically turning back to pause and ping the group. This technique blends visual and verbal, and when it is done, (with circles and double-backs and arrows all over), I turn and sit down and shut up and listen.
In this way the meeting agenda has evolved and is written in real time — with real time interaction from the participants. My meetings are relatively short. I want the participants to speak and engage. No faking it, otherwise you will need to wear a flak jacket.
Rogelberg has a statistic that is crushing — “there are 55 million meetings each day in the U.S., yet only 20 percent of the leaders get training in how to run an effective meeting.” He goes on to argue that less is more. Only put the people you think you really need in the room — and then eliminate one of those.
One other half-baked idea from yours truly is the “walking meeting.” My office is near the beach, so there are two loops, one is 18 minutes and one is 42 minutes. Wear comfortable shoes. But no more than three people in the meeting.
Rogelberg says to try to make meetings fun — e.g. bring some Play-Doh. I think that is insane, unless your company is selling software to Chuck E. Cheese. It is always about focus and time, and are we wasting it. And bring a pen (old school, laptop is OK) to take notes and demand a clear takeaway that someone has to deliver on. I had coffee outside the other day and used a paper bag to take the notes.
Meetings can facilitate collaboration and creativity, but to get that requires a skillful leader. Rogelberg’s research shows that the “effectiveness of meetings has a direct correlation on the satisfaction or dissatisfaction on how people feel about their jobs.” Wow, maybe an all-day boring meeting to discuss employee happiness?
Senturia, a serial entrepreneur who invests in early-stage technology companies, writes weekly about entrepreneurship in San Diego. Please email ideas to Neil at [email protected].
Rule No. 603