Published here October 2019


Musings Index

Making Meetings More Effective - Part 1

First, I think we have to understand why meetings often are not effective. In fact many turn out to be downright boring, except perhaps for that one item on the agenda for which you are required to attend. Well, it so happens that about seven years ago a gentleman by the name of David DiSalvo listed the following "10 Reasons Why Your Brain Hates Long Business Meetings".[1]

Here are the first five:

1.   Crammed agendas inspire adults to act like kids waiting for recess.

Conventional agendas usually look like someone is trying to cram as many topics as possible in a one or two day period, because that's exactly what someone is trying to do. This approach hamstrings productivity from the get-go because everyone looking at the agenda realizes it contains far too much for one meeting in the given timeframe. That inspires people to focus on how much time they'll have to endure before making it to the next break. Not a great way to kick off a meeting.

2.   The understood subtext of most meetings: "We probably won't do most of this stuff."

Everyone who has been to a few long meetings already knows that most of what's discussed will never materialize. And, truth be told, most of it probably shouldn't. Nevertheless, your brain wants an achievement target — a sense that this labor will not be in vain. If the subtext going in is that the meeting probably won't yield any significant achievements, that's a tough way to get motivated.

3.   Many meetings are too long for the wrong reasons.

Full day or two day meetings are simply too long. Our brains will not remain engaged for even half that time, if that. The reason usually given for why the meeting is so long is that "we have a lot to get done." Fair enough, but that rationale will not change the way the human brain works no matter how often it's repeated. Instead, meeting organizers will just feel like they are getting a lot done, but that isn't the genuine article.

4.   Perceived dedication to efficiency neuters a team's productivity.

When brains come together, they can accomplish great things — but trying to silo a group's efforts into agenda chunks isn't the best way to realize that greatness. People need time to coalesce around an idea, work it like clay, and test different ways to animate it. Does that sound like a typical business meeting to you?

5.   Little words on slides make Jack a dull boy.

Whenever I see a PowerPoint slide crammed full of as much little text and graphs and whatever, I immediately feel the need for a bathroom break. Bottom line: no one is able to process that much information in the few moments the slide passes by, and no one is even going to try. The brain wants ideas served clearly and with a rewarding reason to pay attention. Anyone who creates incomprehensible slides is wasting everyone's time.

Here are the second five:

6.   Exhaustion spreads like herpes.

Everything mentioned so far feeds into group exhaustion — a potent psychosocial contagion. All it takes is a couple of people to start squirming and getting up for coffee and looking like they'd rather be doing anything but this, and the contagion spreads. Conventional business meetings are essentially petri dishes for the exhaustion virus.

7.   Why are we here? Oh yeah, to get ready for the next meeting.

Another big anti-motivator is that our brains are reward-driven organs. Knowing that the follow-on reward for spending all this time in a meeting is simply to have another meeting, is definitely not motivating.

8.   The "Parking Lot" (aka, The cemetery of new ideas).

Most conventional meetings have a white board in the corner with the heading "Parking Lot" written across the top. This is the place for ideas, suggestions, questions or anything else that doesn't " fit" the meeting agenda, to go for future consideration. Much of what's placed in the parking lot is pointless fodder, but some of it is really good stuff. What happens to that good stuff? Usually, nothing — This is yet another major anti-motivator for the achievement-driven brain.

9.   It's the numbers, stupid (or, follow the money, moron).

When everyone knows that the only real reason for the meeting is to figure out how to "make the numbers," creativity is sapped before the first cup of coffee is poured. Structuring meetings around financial performance metrics is not a good way to motivate people. Ideas are motivating, and the development and nurturing of ideas will lead to making the numbers. Conventional meetings almost always have this backwards.

10.   Playing nice is boring.

To really get the most out of a brain gathering, you have to let the chips fall where they may. When conventional meetings are strung up with so many artificial pleasantries, it's a little nauseating. People need an opportunity to work the ideas like clay, and if some of the clay gets thrown around the room a few times, that's not so bad. Sacrificing creativity for procedure never gets the job done, no matter how many muffins and cookies are available.

Next month we'll introduce solutions.

1. At the time of writing, David DiSalvo was a Senior Contributor to Pharma & Healthcare. His original paper can be found published here: David is also the author of the book: "What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite".
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