View from the Bridge

Orchestrating Effective Meeting Performance

By Kirk Mahlen, Advisor  In almost every organization, we hear complaints that there are too many meetings and too much email.  To make matters worse, many meetings are perceived to be both unproductive and time consuming.  While the subject of meetings is decidedly not glamorous, it is important to remember that meetings both reflect and influence organizational culture while seeking to provide some form of business value.  Recognizing the critical role that meetings play in enabling and supporting operations and culture, what can be done to improve overall meeting effectiveness?  To use a musical metaphor, one of our goals as leaders should be to orchestrate effective meeting performance by arranging or directing meeting elements to surreptitiously produce a desired effect. Meeting elements consist of the people, processes, and technology used to support the following meeting activities:

  • planning / preparation,
  • communications,
  • facilitation,
  • engagement / participation,
  • documentation,
  • evaluation / feedback,
  • decision making,
  • information sharing,
  • team building and,
  • training / education.

Meetings are, first and foremost, about effective communications if we imply some form of required verbal interaction.  Meetings are so pervasive that an entire industry of Meeting (Event) Planners has arisen.  While there are any number of leading practices for how best “to do” meetings, I’m convinced actual practices vary widely across organizations with corresponding results.  Generally speaking, there seems to be notable differences between routine, standing meetings where the same or similar content is covered on multiple occasions and ad-hoc / project focused meetings which tend to rely on greater rigor and discipline.  Please remember that being busy with meetings (almost a boast with some employees) does not necessarily correlate with being productive.

DEFINITION: It is not my purpose here to describe all of the various meeting types in any level of detail.  However, it may be helpful to provide a high-level definition to which we can agree.  Given the wide variety of individual meeting experiences and closely-held beliefs, let’s use the Wikipedia definition of meeting for purposes of this document. “A meeting is a gathering of two or more people that has been convened for the purposes of achieving a common goal through verbal interaction, such as sharing information or reaching agreement.  Meetings may occur face-to-face or virtually, as mediated by communications technology, such as a telephone conference call, a skyped conference call or a videoconference.”

SITUATION: While significant literature and research exists regarding effective meeting practices and performance, actual practices vary widely across organizations.  For most organizations, meetings are a seemingly simple fact of life, frequently taken for granted, and rarely challenged as it relates to effectiveness and business value.  Effective meetings must serve a useful purpose.

A recent survey conducted by Doodle (the online calendar tool company) titled “The State of Meetings 2019” sheds light on the current situation:

  • 15-20% of organizational time spent in meetings is common with the range for some individuals being much higher,
  • 71% of meeting time is unproductive to some degree, and
  • $399B in wasted time in 2019 for US businesses only.

The survey also provides insight into contributing factors and the impact to employee satisfaction and performance including:

  • poorly organized meetings mean I don’t have enough time to do the rest of my work (44 percent),
  • unclear actions lead to confusion (43 percent),
  • bad organization results in a loss of focus on projects (38 percent),
  • irrelevant attendees slow progress (31 percent), and
  • inefficient processes weaken client/supplier relationships (26 percent).

Recognizing that there are many different types of meetings, where does your organization stand with respect to orchestrating effective meeting performance?  Should meeting performance be a key performance indicator (KPI) and at what level?

 ACTIONS: Many organizations have not identified meeting performance as a problem or an opportunity. Assuming interest in orchestrating effective meeting performance as a leader, facilitator, or participant, any number of actions can and should be taken:

 Organizational Initiative – Establish an organizational (or departmental) initiative to orchestrate effective meeting performance.  Treat it like a real project with appropriate management, planning, funding, sponsorship, governance, communications, and resources.

 Assessment, Analysis, & Awareness – Perform a current state assessment and analysis to develop increased awareness of the potential problem or opportunity.  Research and identify leading practices including potential use of new technologies.  Inventory and document existing meetings with key data attributes as a critical first step.  Consider interviews, surveys, direct observation, and questionnaires to support analysis in developing specific organizational findings and recommendations.

 Execution – Develop and execute detailed implementation plans following approval of findings and recommendations.  Possible alternatives and action items may include the following:

  1. Establish a baseline by inventorying and documenting all meetings using a secure and well-organized digital storage capability.
  2. Require that every “official” meeting have an Agenda with Goals & Objectives.
  3. Require distribution of background and other reading materials to participants a minimum of 24 – 48 hours prior to the meeting.
  4. Require that some form of relevant minutes and/or notes be documented including clearly communicated follow-up items, next steps, and/or Action Plans. Summarize and focus on what is most important (decisions, approvals, issues, changes, key learnings, etc.).  Be sure to avoid detailed word for word narratives.
  5. Clarify practices for various meeting types including routine, regularly scheduled meetings vs. one-time, ad-hoc meetings. Post in every meeting room.
  6. Determine the optimal meeting time length and whether it should be fixed or variable.
  7. Determine optimal approach for identifying participants.
  8. Evaluate meeting and facilitation skills for executives, directors, managers, and others. Provide training / education as appropriate.
  9. Balance the meeting load across groups of executives, directors, managers, and staff.
  10. Start all meetings on time and end all meetings 10 minutes early to allow adequate time for travel between meetings.
  11. Review and optimize meeting facilities (number, location, seating, lighting, temperature, sound, size, audio / video, technology access, etc.).
  12. Review and clarify food and beverage-related policies and procedures for meetings.
  13. Develop and use standard tools and templates with corporate logos for all meeting materials.
  14. Explore new and emerging technologies which support effective meeting performance.
    • Online displays outside of meeting room locations can support the real-time display of logistical information for meetings and the particular meeting room location. In addition to assisting with getting the right participants to the right meeting room location, such displays can also support attendance tracking with the addition of scanning capabilities.
    • Audio and video capture and displays have evolved considerably in recent years to make the meeting presentation a much more immersive and engaging experience. Such displays can also be used to better support remote conferences and webinars.
    • Use of voice recognition tools to assist with documentation.
    • Automated tools and devices to assist with real-time surveys and questionnaires.
    • And there are many more.
  15. Go digital wherever possible and save paper. Success requires an effective document repository.
  16. Establish rules of conduct for individual participants during meetings (especially as it relates to mobile devices) to maintain participant engagement and involvement.
  17. Establish meeting-related KPIs to maintain focus and measure / determine effectiveness of meeting improvement efforts.

While the list of possible actions to orchestrate effective meeting performance may seem large at first-glance, established research indicates that the rewards for many organizations can be significant.  A good starting point may be a “simple” assessment to develop a sense of organizational awareness regarding the extent of a meeting problem or opportunity.

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