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What we can learn from “The Surprising Science of Meetings”

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Posted on March 27, 2020

Editor’s Note: Thank you to Tom Chanter for giving his permission to republish a portion of his Medium post, “How to Fix Unproductive Business Meetings.”

By Tom Chanter

Steven G. Rogelberg has a PhD in organizational science. He literally wrote the book on productive meetings — The Surprising Science of Meetings. He has dedicated his career, his life — to transforming bad meetings to productive, enjoyable and worthwhile meetings. But that’s impossible, right? There are many things we can learn from Rogelberg. So, whether the meeting is in-person or in a video conference like many of us are doing these days, here are his best insights.

1. What’s measured gets managed

Start with an assessment of your current meetings. After your next meeting, ask yourself a few questions:

  • Who did most of the talking? Was it you? One or two other people?
  • Were people distracted? Conducting side conversations?
  • Did the discussion stray to irrelevant topics?

If the answer is yes to any of these questions; you’ve got some room for improvement.

2. If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail

The most common mistake of bad meetings is that they’re pointless. They have no intent. But this mistake can easily be avoided.

Define your goals for the meeting. In the military, this strategy is known as the Commander’s Intent. Every mission has a one-line explanation that captures the overall objective. This will make sure your meeting has a purpose — if it doesn’t — cancel the meeting and save everyone some time.

3. Politeness creates pain

People often send meeting invitations out of politeness. And then people accept them out of politeness. It’s time we become ruthless in who we send meetings to — and when we accept them. It may sound harsh, but helping someone avoid a pointless meeting is actually a huge kindness and productivity boost. Only invite the people that need to be there.

4. Add novelty to make it interesting

Repetition is boring. Meeting at the same time; at the same place; to talk about the same things — is incredibly uninspiring. And if your team isn’t inspired, can you really expect them to have great new ideas? Of course not.

Meet at a different time of day. Change the meeting venue. You can even take it out of the office or conduct a walking meeting. Meet for a different length of time. Change the seating arrangements so everyone is sitting next to different colleagues.

5. Conduct a ‘Premortem’

This tactic is important for high-stakes meetings. When you have a meeting that absolutely must go well, conducting a ‘premortem’ reduces the risk of a mistake. So what exactly is a premortem?

A premortem is like a postmortem — except the analysis is done beforehand instead of after. Essentially, you’re trying to predict everything that could go wrong. It allows you to fix potential problems before they occur.

6. Avoid falling victim to Parkinson’s Law

Parkinson’s Law states that the length of time needed to complete a task will expand or contract according to the time you have to do it. The fact that most business meetings are either half or an hour-long is a problem. Even if we only need 20 minutes, we often extend it needlessly. This is a waste of time that’s easily addressed.

7. Have 15-minute huddles like The Obama Administration

The Obama administration would meet daily for 15 minutes. They would huddle together and address all key issues. By limiting the meeting to 15 minutes, it kept the meetings focused on what really mattered. This is similar to the daily all-hands meetings by tech companies like Apple.

8. Seek feedback and apply it

As we saw above, while you may think you had a productive meeting, your team may think it was a waste of time. So take the time to find out whether it was helpful to them. If it wasn’t, don’t take it personally. Most meetings suck. But when you’re aware of the problem you can remedy it.

Meeting adjourned

Most meetings suck. But they don’t have to. By taking the time and making the effort, we can make our meetings exceptional learning experiences and incredibly productive for our entire team.