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  • James Kelly

Insight: Make Meetings Work - Two Year Survey

Meetings seem to cause difficulties for organizations everywhere. With video, phone and hybrid work becoming the norm, it’s critical that we get meetings right.

Our team recently completed a two-year survey project about meeting performance. Through interviews and questionnaires, we identified the most worrying problems that regularly occur in meetings. Below are the top 12 that rated above other responses.

The combination, frequency and severity of these problems was surprising, as was the response to their regular appearances in workplaces.

The survey was conducted from 2019 to 2021 and included (predominantly tech-based) private and public sector organizations, not-for-profit, and educational institutions. There was a broad spread of organizational levels in the respondents; executives, middle managers, team leads, and operational staff. The geographical regions generally included Melbourne, Sydney and Singapore with a small number from the broader APAC region. The responses were rated ‘Always’, ‘Often’, ‘Occasionally’, and ‘Never’.

Though there were several teams that were highly effective and mature, most meeting performance tended to decline in teams over time. This occurred both in effectiveness (getting the right results), and efficiency (using the fewest possible resources). We define this phenomenon as ‘Meeting Fade’.

Not keeping to the agenda

This was by far the most frequent problem reported by survey respondents across all organization levels. Almost four out of five reported regularly straying from the agenda. Almost all meetings have strayed from their agenda; some justifiably, others less so. If it is a regular occurrence, it can become a drain on resources – particularly if it delays other decisions from being made.

Even though this can be caused by a variety of issues, one of the causes frequently reported in this survey was the lack of meeting moderator/chair/facilitator not enforcing scope. They often allowed other issues to be raised, to the detriment of other meeting topics.

This can be addressed by:

  • Training meeting moderators and participants in the expectations of keeping to the scope. With focus and regular review, this can significantly improve performance and ROI. Out-of-scope items can be noted and raised at a later time.

Unclear actions

Many meetings include lots of discussions, but no explicit agreement on who does what

by when. There is often a vague, sometimes unstated understanding of what will happen. However because everyone has their own implicit assumptions, specific actions sometimes become lost in the excitement of discussions, arguments and decisions.

This can be addressed by:

  • Making the actions or decisions explicit and documented. By writing down who will undertake an action, by when, and who will follow up, actions suddenly become visible and assigned to people who are accountable.

  • Make sure the actions are read out at the end of a meeting and assigned team members acknowledge them.

No minutes or record of discussion:

It was surprising to see the number of meetings that were conducted where no record of the meeting was made. It was left to the individual participants to keep their own notes together with any decisions made or actions agreed.

Many of the most effective meetings simply had someone record the important discussions, decisions and actions using handwritten notes which would be distributed at the end of the meeting. This gave immediate visibility to attendees who could provide immediate feedback and plan whatever actions were agreed.

An interesting effect was where the meeting organizer wanted to type and format the minutes. The longer they took to distribute them, the less likely the actions were to be completed.

This can be addressed by :

  • Preparing essential notes during the meeting, even if handwritten

  • Distributing these at the end of the meeting, or within 15 minutes of it ending.

Wrong people attending

This issue was often reported by invitees, rather than meeting organizers. This may be partly caused by an illusory superiority effect. Participants often felt that although they were invited to meetings, it was more like “being cc’ed on emails, just in case”.

Many felt an obligation to attend, since they "didn't know what they didn't know". They often felt regret after the meeting at not having pushed back when they didn't understand why they were invited.

This can be addressed by :

  • ensuring the purpose of the meeting is clear before the meeting is scheduled

  • Assessing your role in the meeting and what value you add by attending:

    • technical/content

    • political

    • authority

  • Push back to the organizer if this isn't clear and well-defined. If someone else is more appropriate, let them know.

Lack of participation

In a related issue, attendees not contributing, or worse yet, being entirely negative, was a very common complaint reported across all levels and types of organizations.

This was frequently highlighted by attendees of long-standing meetings. An important part of meeting fade is a loss of active interest, involvement, ownership and trust.

Attendees, and sometimes organizers, were no longer engaged in delivering the results that were needed or expected. They were simply "going through the motions".

This can be addressed by :

  • Letting attendees know exactly what was expected from them attending the meeting, and how they could tangibly contribute

  • Have a checklist of attendees (e.g. on the agenda) and be sure to call on everyone to make a contribution

  • Review after the meeting any attendees who didn't contribute and whether:

    • they didn't understand their role

    • someone else would have been more appropriate

  • Update your own details about who should be invited in future

Starting Late and Finishing Late

These problems were not as frequently reported as we had (anecdotally) thought. Everyone has experienced meetings that start and/or finish late. In some organizations it has almost become a learned behavior.

Some of this is caused by a lack of discipline by meeting organizers or meeting participants who may have an unwritten rule of 15 minutes late is not really "late".

It has become a self-perpetuating problem, because "everyone knew meetings started 10-15 minutes late, so they managed it in their schedules".

However, many respondents with back to back meetings often experienced a knock-on effect of throwing out the schedules of meetings throughout the day and week. This also became self-perpetuating and reinforced the behavior in meetings

This can be addressed by :

  • Meeting organizers or facilitators must start the meeting on time, and NOT waste time with late arrivers "catching them up" - this is seen as rewarding their late arrivals by people who were on time.

  • Schedule meetings just before lunch, or at the end of the day (especially if there is a hard stop time when most people finish for the day).

  • Having timings set for each section of the meeting. Though these will be guesses initially, they will become more accurate and enforced over time.

Lack of preparation

This was answered in two ways.

Participant felt the organizer had not given sufficient time, information, or expectations for the meeting to be effective

Meeting organizers often felt the participants had not spent sufficient time, and often came underprepared (without having read background material etc)

This can be addressed by :

  • Meeting organizers should distribute materials with a reasonable amount of time. Sometimes things can be urgent, but we received dozens of comments about this type of issue happening regularly.

  • If you don’t receive the information you need, pushback rescheduled the meeting, so you don’t waste precious time on unnecessary work.

No agenda and purpose unclear

Almost half of the respondents told us they often didn’t receive a clear agenda. Sometimes they were told a vague topic and sometimes a project needed to be “be discussed“

Part of meeting fade in long-standing meetings is that the topics and expectations become fuzzier and buzzier over time.

This can be addressed by :

  • If you don’t have an agenda, you’re not doing your job as a meeting organized.

  • Write a basic agenda with start and stop times, topics, and how long for each topic.

  • If you don’t receive an agenda, ask the meeting organizer for it. If you don’t receive it, cancel the meeting until you receive it.

Domineering team members

Everyone needs to know the “Meeting Killers” (from the WSJ) and “Meeting Monsters”, and how to effectively deal with them. With each of these you need to either deal with them individually or “collectively” at the meeting. You need to assess the level of reaction/compliance and what political situation is occurring.

Attacker – someone who attacks the person and not the idea can be very destructive and demoralizing for participants – especially the intended victim. Emphasize in the ground rules that the ideas are for discussion, not those who proposed them. Take them to task privately and then reiterate this during the meeting.

Dominator/Monopolizer – like the attacker this type of meeting participant can destroy the effectiveness of a meeting. Giving everyone an equal amount of time is often effective – as is getting their input prior to the meeting (with a pre-wire).

Tangent talker – this is why the parking lot is so important – let them get their point across and then put it in the parking lot. Giving everyone an equal amount of time can often shorten their tangents.

Talkaholic – if this is a frequent behavior allow a brief amount of time from each person and get input from them in the day prior to the meeting. This enables you to pre-wire them and reduce their incessant talking during the meeting

Jokester – let them know everyone loves a good laugh. This only becomes a problem if this is a recurring problem. Let them know privately that it’s starting to impact meeting effectiveness, and that you need their valued contributions.

Silent assassin/sleeper – let them know silence means agreement. They need to have a chance to raise objections early so these can be addressed.

Yes-man/Brown-noser – if they are saying Yes to everything why are they needed? Simply allow them to give their proxy to the chairperson or another participant.

Devil’s Advocate/Cynic/Dr No – allow them to provide their solutions or options. If they don’t have alternatives and it’s a recurring behavior, then address it individually with them letting them know if they need to provide options.

Ping pong master/ buck passer – try a pre-wire or get their input prior to the meeting. If they have a reputation for doing this, look at alternatives to their participation.

Nit picker – acknowledge their contributions and get them to focus on the larger picture. If they can’t then just involve them separately so that the other meeting participants can work on the meeting objectives.

Staller and Fence sitter – manage everyone’s expectations so that they know a decision will be made (where relevant) by the end of the meeting. This is where a pre-wire becomes critically important.

Technical problems

The last, and surprisingly the least reported issue was that of technical problems. These type of problems are generally experienced once or twice by organizers and participants, usually with new technologies (e.g. remote based meetings was a steep learning curve for everyone), but once participants familiarize themselves, these problems were much less frequent.

This can be addressed by :

  • Ensure that everyone learns and tries out the technology before the meeting.

  • Ensure passwords, connectors and screen sharing is set up correctly. Obvious, but not always checked.

  • Have a backup e.g. revert to audio only if video fails, or have printouts or on a memory stick that can be shared if in a face to face meeting.

While these 12 represent the majority of problems experienced in meetings nowadays, there are many others, if you want weekly tips on how to make meetings work, subscribe to our weekly meetings tactics newsletter by emailing us:

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