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Top tips for more effective business meetings

By Giorgia Prestento, decision-making advisor, change management expert, behavioural scientist and CEO of Optimal Decisions

Every week, business people spend hours in meetings, and more often than not they are an unproductive waste of time and effort. If we can’t end our meetings addiction, are there things we can do to make them more effective?

Yes there are. But first we need to understand why meetings are so often less than optimal.

One reason is that we assume groups are better at making decisions, just because there are more people involved. But that’s not always the case, not least because a group of people can be easier to sway to a particular course of action.

Another problem with groups is that people don’t share information. There’s a power dynamic at work, and minorities or juniors can feel they aren’t in a strong enough position to say much or, more importantly, to disagree or offer an alternative point of view.

Human psychology plays a part. Too often we think ‘Oh well, nobody else mentioned that so maybe it’s not relevant’. It also could be that we don’t share our information when it conflicts with someone else’s because we don’t want to put that person down.

Then, there is the social pressure we experience in group situations. If we say something that goes against the flow, or against the stated (or assumed!) position of the group or the company, we fear our personal reputation will be damaged.

Psychologists talk too about the cascade effect. If one person around the table gives an opinion, the next person in line is likely to say ‘OK, I’m fine with that’, even if they disagree. This is problematic if the first person doesn’t have knowledge of the topic in question and is agreed with simply because of where they are sitting. An unstoppable ball is now rolling, with the third person saying ‘Well, I’m not going to disagree; what’s everyone going to think of me?’.

Given these limitations, how does one explain the preference for decisions made by groups? One possibility is that leaders are reluctant to take on all responsibility for a decision. If a course of action seems to have been made by everyone as a unified group, there is the reassurance of shared responsibility.

Any alien will tell you meeting inequality and a tendency to conformist groupthink are not conducive to the sharing of innovative ideas or the airing of even slightly risky or different viewpoints. However, they do play to our all-too human craving for certainty.

Given that we aren’t aliens and probably won’t be changing our innate human behaviour or the way we work together any time soon, are there things we can do to improve our decision-making and make meetings more effective?

The answer is yes there are, if you step back, challenge common assumptions and put in place the following guidelines:

1 If you can, cut
Reduce the number of meetings and the number of people attending. Let Jeff Bezos be your guide and adopt the Amazon internal rule that if a group needs more than two pizzas, it’s too big.

2 Have a structure
Always be very clear about the purpose of a meeting, the kind of decisions required and the roles and responsibilities of the people attending. Some meetings are just progress checks; some are social; a significant decision-making meeting is a different category altogether.

3 Always have an agenda – and stick to it
In far too many companies, there is no agenda and no clear purpose for a meeting. This lack of clarity produces more and longer meetings. In the meeting invitation, urge people to communicate the points they want to see raised, even if it’s just a sentence or two, so that a clear and relevant focus gets defined.

4 Follow Up
What happened to taking minutes? If there’s no record, how do we know what really got agreed or raised? If it’s a group decision, everybody in that group will have their own memory of the discussion, which will create problems later. We all have very selective memories and just remember the things that are important to us, forgetting the rest. This can be ruinous for auditing a decision’s history, for positing alternative options and for checking if the decision was ever implemented.

5 Every meeting needs a ref
In my work with major corporations, I’ve found it useful to have a person present who doesn’t have a stake or an opinion about what the best decision is – a neutral facilitator who can manage the discussion, for example by making sure people with strong opinions don’t take over the conversation and stop everybody else from speaking.

6 Use tools that build better meetings
There are some great tools for drawing people out and empowering them to contribute.

Steps like these can help make your meetings shorter and turn them
back into the channels for addressing problems and spotting business opportunities that you need them to be. Without them, too many meetings are just crowds without any wisdom.


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