The Magic of Meetings – More than meets the eye

19th January 2015

For many years we have held a belief that there is more to meetings than meets the eye. Meetings, which we define as any time two or more people get together to do work that cannot be achieved by just one person, not only remain essential but also have the power to transform the performance of organisations. Whether they take place face to face, on the telephone or virtually, they have a profound impact on the individuals, the group and the organisation that goes beyond the meeting event itself. So, why is no one paying attention to and leveraging this power in organisations?

THE PROBLEM WITH MEETINGS

There is plenty of research about the huge negative impact on productivity caused by time wasted in meetings. Scott Adams has long had fun with his Dilbert cartoons that laugh at meetings.

Some headline statistics from Meeting Magic research include:

  • Managers spend 50-70% of their time in meetings
  • 46% of meetings are a complete waste of time
  • Only 10% of meetings result in action

… you don’t need to be a statistician to work out that this is a huge cost to any organisation.

In addition, the growing trend for employee engagement surveys leads to further evidence that meetings are a source of frustration in most organisations. Most engagement surveys show that managers have too many meetings and they are not productive.

A root of the  problem is that, in most organisations, poor meeting practices stem from the top. Most managers receive little or no training in collaborative meeting skills and by the time people become leaders they think themselves above the need for this kind of development.

A study of what top teams do at 187 Fortune 500 / FTSE250 firms Mankins (2004) found at the executive board level that agenda setting is unfocused and undisciplined. Less than 5% of the sample had a process for focusing the leadership team’s time on the most important issues / priorities. In 50% of the sample, the agenda was ad hoc or exactly the same from meeting to meeting. He also found meetings were not structured to produce decisions. More that 65% of meetings were not even called for the purpose of making a decision.

Overall, meetings have earned a bad name for themselves. They are seen as a source of pain, not gain!

It’s interesting that, until now, no research we are aware of has been done to drill into the root causes of meeting problems and the potential power held in meetings, if these problems were resolved. This is probably why the few organisations that tackle the problems of meetings tend to address the easy-to-tackle area of meeting discipline–we’ve all seen the meeting rules on the meeting room wall. These tactics unfortunately have no lasting impact on meeting productivity and organisational performance.

THE HYPOTHESIS: MEETING CULTURE IS A REFLECTION OF ORGANISATIONAL CULTURE, or rather ORGANISATIONAL CULTURE IS REFLECTED IN MEETING CULURE

Katherine Woods, founder and CEO of Meeting Magic, has worked as a meeting facilitator for over 20 years, 15 of them as an external consultant. Through this work Katherine and the team at Meeting Magic have had the privilege of working with groups around the world, in all kinds of organisations, at all levels. This experience has taught us that there is enormous potential in meetings, far beyond the meetings themselves. Until recently this has just been a belief of ours based on our own experience. Now that we have the initial insights from our meeting questionnaire, we start to have reliable data that shines a light on the potential power of meetings and the link to organisational performance.

Our hypothesis is that if most meetings are unproductive, unengaging and don’t get the best out of people, then work gets done in most organisations without truly effective collaboration; the people power is not being harnessed , despite the recognition of how important it is to do this. If meetings were more effective then, not only would it release the intellectual horsepower of an organisation, it would also save an awful lot of wasted time. By harnessing the people power, meetings can enable groups to solve the unsolvable, invent and innovate, and drive aligned action. These kinds of meetings leave the participants feeling motivated, engaged and committed to their work.

If we agree that meetings at their best enable people to collaborate effectively then it makes sense to work towards getting the best our of meetings.

We have seen from our experience as facilitators that meeting culture mirrors organisational culture. This means that what plays out in meetings is a reflection of the wider organisation: this spans everything from how people collaborate, how decisions get made, how leaders behave…. The list is endless. We use the terminology ‘culture’ because, like organisations, meetings operate on a number of levels: there is the cognitive, overt process and content of meeting; and there is the invisible people-dynamic. These combine to create (or negate) the overall meeting impact.

This correlation between meeting culture and organisational culture can work two ways:

  • Any changes to the meeting culture will have an impact on the whole organisational culture. This means that leveraging meetings to change organisational culture is a practical and effective way to implement culture change, which can otherwise seem like a big ocean to boil.
  • Diagnosing the meeting culture of an organisation can provide powerful insights into the whole organisational culture, and serve as a catalyst for enhancing and building on things that are working and addressing things that are not.

THE EVIDENCE

Our research is based on a mix of companies across a range of industries. Although the sample was relatively small we were surprised at how strong – statistically significant – the results are. The results show that the key outcome variables are:

  • Effective commitment to the organisation
  • Meeting engagement

We looked at both dimensions of an emotional connection and a sense of belonging at the organisational level – affective commitment – as well as looking at engagement at the meeting level – meeting engagement.

We also looked at three specific outcome variables related to meetings that have a major impact on meeting effectiveness:

  • Trust between participants
  • Action focus
  • Implementation

… These are things we can achieve when meetings are run effectively.

It is well established that organisations with staff engagement and organisational commitment outperform those without.

For example, Gallup’s recent survey of employee engagement at a global level found engaged workers have significantly higher productivity, profitability, customer ratings, less turn over, absenteeism and fewer safety incidents than those who are not. It is therefore not surprising they also found that engaged workforces have a higher Earnings Per Share (EPS) than those that do not. It is also worth considering the cost of having actively disengaged or hostile employees, so called ‘organisational terrorists’ that can cause huge cost and disruption.

In of the the few longitudnal studies in corporate longevity, Collins and Porass (1998) found that companies with employees that had an emotional connection to the purpose of the organisation significantly outperformed their counterparts on the stock market by a factor of 12 over a 70-year period.

So, these research insights make the link directly between a productive meeting culture, emotional connection to the business and business performance, in a unique way.

It is also interesting to see the interrelationahips between these outcomes and what goes on in meetings to drive these outcomes. Below is a list of the key factors that influence each of these meeting outcomes.

EFFECTIVE COMMITMENT TO THE ORGANISATION is achieved through:

  • Positive atmosphere
  • Willingness to confront conflict

MEETING ENGAGEMENT is achieved through:

  • Clarity of strategy, values and goals

Whilst effective commitment at the organisational level is people-related, engagement at the meeting level is realted to linking the meeting to the purpose of the organisation. We have often stressed to our clients the importance of linking meetings to the overarching objectives of the company so this was a particularly important finding to us.

TRUST BETWEEN PARTICIPANTS is achieved through:

  • Generative meeting process
  • Respect and tolerance
  • Clarity of strategy, values and goals

Here we find trust between participants involves process, people and purpose related elements: focusing on just one of these elements will not achieve trust amongst meeting participants, a key ingredient of effective meetings.

ACTION FOCUS is achieved through:

  • Open and egalitarian meeting environment
  • Meeting discipline
  • Clarity of strategy, values and goals

The first two factors are process-related and we find there is little awareness of group process in many business meetings. Our Meeting Magic methodology focusses group process, so this result was particularly insightful to us and impressed upon us how process and purpose need to be linked.

IMPLEMENTATION is achieved through:

  • Generative meeting process
  • Virtual capability
  • Meeting planning, setting and relevant information

This finding was interesting because of the practical implications. In particular, capability in working virtually is now a ‘needed to play’, no longer a ‘nice to have’.

Many of these in hindsight may not be a surprise but that’s what makes the research results especially compelling–they make sense. They support what our experience of meetings has, up to now, suggested. And, they provide us with a way of identifying the things to tackle in changing our meeting cultures that will really make a difference.

These findings do highlight some particular insights:

  • The power of purpose highlights some particular insights up to now, suggested. And, they provide us with a way of identifying the things to tackle in changing our meeting cultures that will really make a difference.
  • The importance of effectively managing group dynamics in meetings–for example, conflict–and not glossing over this or ignoring its potential to derail meeting impact.
  • The need for (virtual) capability for people to progress work outside meetings.

SO WHAT? THE POTENTIAL OF MEETINGS

As meeting facilitators, our work is focused on helping clients get the most from the special meetings into which they invite our support. Over the years our practice has developed and we are more focused and more able to extend the impact of a meeting beyond the meeting itself. Nevertheless, the majority of business managers spend most of their time in meetings without external facilitation–their everyday, workaday meetings remain largely ineffectual, despite frustration and best efforts. That 10% barrier is seldom breached.

We are NOT advocating the use of external facilitators in every meeting!! Apart for anything else, the world of facilitation contains a broad spectrum of capability–not all good!

What we are advocating is that organisations invest in understanding what goes on in their meetings, what works and what doesn’t, so that they can harness the power of the people they invest so much in attracting, retaining and developing. If meetings, on average, are only 10% effective a the moment there is a whole heap of opportunity out there, ready for the taking, for those organisations willing to take advantage of this.

With these results, and now with the instruments to be able to benchmark and track progress in specific areas, we now know what contributes to different parts of the business at the organisational and meeting level. Armed with our experience and know-how Meeting Magic can make targeted interventions and measure progress to improve meeting engagement as well as organisational fulfillment, which contributes to an improvement in employee discretionary performance and ultimately corporate longevity.

HOW MEETING MAGIC CAN HELP

Meeting Magic has collaborated with experts in the field of diagnostic research to develop a diagnostic approach that gets under the skin of what goes on in an organisation’s meetings. Through this, we can discover where meetings are succeeding and failing to get the best from people.

Once this is properly understood, action can be taken to leverage meetings by, for example: working to establish alignment to clear outcomes; designing meeting agendas to maximise participation and effective collaboration; managing the meeting flow to get the most out of the time spent together, efficiently; harnessing the group dynamic to the advantage fo the work that needs to be done; and, creating an environment for thinking, discussion and decision-making that fosters clarity and commitment to purpose and action. As described above, the effect of these changes in meetings will drive employee engagement, leading to improved business performance.

Alternatively, if there is a culture shift that you are looking to make in your organisation, Meeting Magic can work with you to design this into a way of running meetings, which will drive the desired culture change. We have worked with clients who have chosen pivotal meetings in their organisation to drive change. The great thing about this approach is people see and experience firsthand the change in action, which has much more power than talking about it.

WE HAVE SEEN THAT WHERE ORGANISATIONS TAP INTO THE MAGIC THAT LIES IN MEETINGS, SHIFTS HAPPEN…

This chart summarizes visually the foundational thinking for this article.

This chart summarizes visually the foundational thinking for this article.

This article was authored by Katherine Woods, Kenda Gaynham & Tim Nugent with contributions by Scott Lichtenstein & Malcolm Higgs. You may request a PDF version by completing the contact form and requesting the article by title.

To learn more about how Meeting Magic can help you diagnose your meeting culture and support culture change contact us on +44 (0)1628 471 114 or complete the contact form to begin a conversation.