Meetings are terrible. Can an elite team fix that?

Meetings are terrible. Can an elite team fix that?

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Meetings are terrible. Can an elite team fix that?

Owning Your Time

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Surgeons, ex-special forces, NBA coaches: can some of the best minds in human performance come up with a plan to make business meetings better?

Meetings are terrible. Can an elite team fix that?

By Corinne Purtill

26th October 2019


Meetings, according to academic research, are the worst. An estimated 36 million to 56 million take place daily in US workplaces alone, according to consulting firm Lucid Meetings. They interrupt the day and thwart valuable deep work; they drain time, morale, and money. In one 2017 Harvard Business Review article, a trio of organisational researchers from Harvard and Boston University interviewed an executive who had taken to quietly jabbing herself in the leg with a pencil as a distraction during painful staff gatherings.

“I honestly think that most meetings are an all-out assault on the human soul,” says Sue Phillips, a minister and co-founder of the Sacred Design Lab, a research and design consultancy based in Tacoma in the US state of Washington. “People are reduced to their functional value. Who they are literally does not matter in that space and time.”

Most meetings are an all-out assault on the human soul – Sue Phillips

Phillips was among a team of experts in human performance who gathered last week in a conference room at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. Fellow participants were heart surgeons, ex-special forces personnel, NBA coaches, neuroscientists and spiritual leaders, all brought together for what organisers dubbed a “Moonshot Summit” on how to fix the humble meeting.

For most of us, business meetings fall well short of the grandeur typically associated with ‘moonshot thinking’ – a term that, in Silicon Valley parlance, refers to the kind of audacious ambition that marked the early days of the space programme. A problem like climate change, for example, undoubtedly deserves our best and brightest minds… but meetings?

Meetings are terrible. Can an elite team fix that?

Top minds met at Stanford University to figure out how to have better meetings. Could this gathering just have been an email, too? (Credit: Alamy)

Bad meeting, bad behaviours

Meetings are mundane, and that’s exactly why they deserve our attention, summit organisers say. Even the loftiest of human endeavours relies on people’s ability to come together in order to exchange information and make decisions. When those things are executed poorly, the repercussions can extend far beyond the people in the room. 

“That gathering of views is such a critical element of a high-performing team or organisation, but it’s one of the things you just blow through,” says Andy Walshe, a co-founder and partner at the Liminal Collective, a high-performance consultancy.

“You’re focused on the tactics on the field, the big vision statements and all that,” Walshe says. “But if you’re not communicating effectively, you’re not getting information shared and breaking down the barriers; a bad meeting can sort of be the focal point for all the rest of the bad behaviours in the organisation.”

Though it may not be apparent in the average conference room, meeting technology has seen some significant breakthroughs in the last decade. Two former Special Operations Naval Officers gave a brief presentation on the US Joint Special Operations Task Force’s Operations and Intelligence (O&I) brief, a daily meeting General Stanley McChrystal started after taking command of elite US counterterrorism efforts in 2003. This 90-minute videoconference successfully convened 7,500 people in 70 locations around the world every day – even though some participants were underwater in submarines and others in remote mountain posts.

Darpa is currently at work on an artificially intelligent ‘computer-based agent’ that sits in on meetings, observes human participants’ behaviour and intervenes when it deems the decision-making process going off-track

Were that not ambitious enough, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) is currently at work on a project called Artificial Social Intelligence for Successful Teams (Asist), an artificially intelligent tool to help groups make decisions in meetings. The agency describes Asist as a socially intelligent “computer-based agent” that sits in on meetings, observes human participants’ behaviour (verbal and otherwise), predicts their actions and intervenes when it deems the decision-making process going off-track – essentially, a digital moderator.

Meetings are terrible. Can an elite team fix that?

Darpa is known for military research, but it is setting its sights on bad meetings as well (Credit: Getty Images)

Yet most organisations don’t have access to superlative technology or – more importantly – to the strong shared sense of urgency and purpose that marks a gathering like the O&I brief. The most sophisticated meeting tools won’t help if half the participants involved see a meeting as a waste of time, or if Paul in accounting still won’t mute his microphone on the days he works from home.

Forget shooting for the moon. The most effective fixes for the humble business meeting are already available, organisational experts say. We just need to implement them.

Why planning matters

“We know how to make [meetings] better, but people choose not to make them better,” says Joe Allen, a University of Utah professor of organisational psychology and director of the Center for Meeting Effectiveness at Salt Lake City’s Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health.

Allen loves meetings. According to his own analysis, there are 204 research papers and books about meetings in academic literature. Allen has written 47 of them, with titles including Meeting mirth: The critical role of impression management and humor style in meetings, and Well, now what do we do? Wait…: A Process Analysis of Meeting Lateness.

Meetings are terrible. Can an elite team fix that?

One professor absorbed more than 200 studies to determine 10 principles – such as sending action items immediately afterwards – that define good meetings (Credit: Corinne Purtill)

Last year, Allen and his colleagues reviewed academic literature and came away with 10 evidence-backed general principles that raise meeting satisfaction and effectiveness. He shared a summarised version with the group:

Invite only the people who need to be there. Attendees should be limited to those whose expertise is necessary to accomplish the tasks at hand.

Schedule the meeting to match its goals. A meeting shouldn’t be an hour if the content can be effectively discussed in 27 minutes.

Use your agenda wisely. A detailed agenda circulated beforehand allows people to prepare. It becomes useless if not adhered to. Keep discussions focused and on task.

Arrive early – or at the very least, on time. Tardiness wastes everyone’s time. In addition, research shows that a few minutes of pre-meeting chitchat helps people feel more comfortable speaking up in the discussion later.

Debrief afterwards. Immediately after the meeting, leaders should send minutes and action items, and clearly identify the people responsible for following through.

Side benefits

Now, the uncomfortable question: could the meeting about meetings just have been an email?

On a purely informational basis: possibly. The first part of the day was spent in various presentations about meetings, group behaviour, and the like, and during the afternoon the participants broke into groups to brainstorm those ideas about how meetings could go better. 

In the group brainstorming sessions, participants tossed out creative ideas: have all participants wear matching jumpsuits to eliminate hierarchy. Trade content at the beginning of a meeting and force colleagues to present one another’s ideas. Give the moderator a heat map to monitor when participants are physically stressed or excited by an idea (yikes). Create a class of professionals whose primary function is to run meetings, or just scrap them altogether and just let chaos unfold.

Yet no cohesive theory of meeting disruption emerged. Despite the abundance of collected talent, it will take far more than one eight-hour workshop to invent a viable meeting replacement. That painful weekly check-in is still on your calendar; you will still be able to hear Paul’s dog in the background the next time he works from home.

Perhaps this experiment reinforces the idea that meetings aren’t the ideal subject for ‘moonshot’-style thinking. Walshe describes high-performance training as 70% evidence-based practices (for an athlete, good sleep and nutrition; for a meeting goer, showing up on time and sticking to the agenda), 20% experimental training, and 10% out-there longshots. Perhaps the same can apply to meetings – but, as Allen and others pointed out, most managers still aren’t even nailing the 70%.

But what would have been lost had they never met at all? Why do any group of people gather in a professional environment?

Some were intrigued by the participant list and excited to meet new potential collaborators. Others wanted to reconnect with people already in their network. For those who focus on meetings for a living, it was a valuable research opportunity. And a few just wanted to get out of their office for a day. And on those fronts, the day was a success.

There are a lot of reasons people meet that have nothing to do with the information on the agenda. A good meeting is one where everyone wants to be there. 

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