In my last article, and my contribution to the HRD Thought Leaders’ suggested trends for 2020, I’ve noted that work has become much more connected, and that HR therefore needs to focus on the performance of groups and networks as well as individuals. One important opportunity, and a direct result of increased connection, is the quantity and quality of meetings.
Many people now spend most of their working time in meetings, and it is well recognized that much of this is wasted. For example, in ‘Time, Talent, Energy’, Bain consultants suggest that 15% of an organisation’s time is spent in meetings, with senior executives spending 40% of their time on them, and up to 25% of an individual’s time in meetings being unnecessary.
Recent research from the University of Malmo in Sweden suggests that most meetings fail to make any decisions and that their greatest benefit can often be providing a form of therapy to participants, helping them cope with the meaninglessness of their working lives (that’s a different, bigger issue, and perhaps an additional future article here).
Reducing this burden can be as simple as using more written communications and social tools instead or in advance of meetings. Amazon executives submit reports in advance of their meetings and attendees get thirty minutes at the start of each meeting to read them before they discuss. Digital guru Dion Hinchcliffe suggests a work hack of a no-meeting meeting. This involves scheduling a meeting, posting its agenda, and setting up a digital channel to review agenda points. If all the items can be completed before the meeting it gets cancelled. The now non-attendees get the time back as reward for using the tools.
It should not need saying, but unfortunately it does, that all meetings that are going to go ahead need a clear agenda so people can prepare and focus, and decide which meetings that need to attend. Try reducing the time for meetings, e.g. making the standard time 30 minutes rather than an hour. And think about who needs to attend and where they should take place, eg a standing meeting with no chairs, or a walking meeting out of doors.
Other improvements include stopping people double booking meetings to decide later which one they will attend, and parallel processing during meetings. Most commonly, this involves email surfing and so having everyone turn off their phones is often the most simple enhancement that can be made. But according to Steven Rogelberg in ‘The Surprising Science of Meetings’, 90% of people admit to daydreaming in meetings too. Responding to that might involve giving people the right to leave a meeting if they don’t feel they’re adding value.
All of the above can be useful in ensuring group and individual performance. However, they are also all rather tactical responses to something which actually needs to be tackled more strategically. The biggest issue for me is that we forget that different types of group have different needs and that these cannot all be met in the same way. For example, communities are all about the relationships between members. Community meetings do not need to discuss details about people’s current activities as much as their passions the community can support, or problems it can help overcome.
But the main problem comes from confusing the roles of functional departments and project / agile teams. Everyone likes to be on a team and so we extend the use of the term into things which actually are not very teamy. For example, we usually call a line manger and their direct reports a team. But most often they are not. They are just a group of people, working individually alongside each other and coordinating their work with one another. Peter Drucker was on the button thirty years ago – people in functional groups ‘play on the team, they do not play as a team’.
True teams need to meet frequently to collaborate on jointly meeting the team’s objectives. Morning stand-up or similar meetings are a great idea, regardless of whether your teams are agile or not.
But functional groups are not real teams, and do not need this type or level of sharing. But people working in functional groups often still attend weekly team meetings and waste huge amounts of time going through their colleagues’ agendas, waiting for their chance to outline their own personal activities too. All these groups really need to do is to get people together for a longer session once every few months, and share deeper concerns to develop trust and camaraderie across group members. If meetings are group therapy, then let’s at least achieve that objective effectively.
It is also something we are going to have to do anyway as many groups become more geographically dispersed and flexible working becomes more common too. It then makes even more sense for people reporting to the same manager to come together less regularly, but do so face-to-face and avoid the problems of audio and video conferencing when they do.
This is an important point as Bain found that 80% of organisational interactions taking place within, not across departments, that is within functions not cross-functional teams. If we can save time here it will have much more impact than the efficiency benefits of ensuring every meeting has an agenda etc.
So yes, it is important to ensure meetings are run effectively and efficiently. But let’s also ensure that we don’t run them when we don’t need to, and that when we do run them, we run them for the right objective and in the right way.