Productive meetings

I’ve had several conversations lately revolving around productivity in meetings. In one a friend described his dissatisfaction with his company’s awaydays. The days were ok but nothing seemed to happen as a result. The fear of meetings not achieving anything – or not achieving what one or two people define as the optimal result – runs fairly deep in organisations.

Often I think the efforts to make meetings productive are actually the cause of the problem. To exclude the risk of failure, a number of boxes get ticked, and action points appear to be agreed. A pleasingly large collection of post-it notes and flip charts are produced. And then not much happens. That’s because people are only half-heartedly agreeing to all these actions in order to pass the test of making the meeting productive.

And I’m sorry, the tactic of really eyeballing people on their commitments doesn’t work well either.

There are no universal solutions, but I often encourage people to get less attached to instant results and more interested in the quality of conversation. And if the fact that meetings aren’t productive is really a big issue, then perhaps what’s needed is a more honest and reflective conversation about why that keeps happening.

This relates to the theme of obliquity, elegantly explored by John Kay here:

Strange as it may seem, overcoming geographic obstacles, winning decisive battles or meeting global business targets are the type of goals often best achieved when pursued indirectly. This is the idea of Obliquity. Oblique approaches are most effective in difficult terrain, or where outcomes depend on interactions with other people.

The conversations that might lead to oblique productivity are too often dismissed as rambling.

What also gets lost in this is the value of space for reflection. Reflective types tend to get squeezed out by those who prefer lots of stimulation, so days get packed with often-frenzied activities. These aren’t designed to make reflective participants close down, but it’s often the effect. The result is meetings on a kind of sugar rush or caffeine high. They appear to some to have a great, buzzy atmosphere… but their longer term effect is to drain people of energy and disconnect them from reality. Which is why they disappoint when we look back on their effects.

What I aim for in my work is to encourage more space in meetings for the unexpected and for reflection as well as stimulation. I think if organisations aren’t willing to risk a certain amount of boredom or emptiness, they may never really get serious creativity in meetings.

6 thoughts on “Productive meetings

  1. Chris Corrigan

    I have lately been building in retreats at the ends of projects with clients. I bring them over to the small island where I live and we spend a day in a reflective appreciation of the work we have done together and what it has meant. We often will walk in the forest or by the ocean and we always eat good food.

    There is never an agenda, and there never has to be “outcomes” but my clients have reported these days away as among the best parts of the project.

    Sometimes it is important to anchor the heart and give our work experiences deeper meaning.

  2. Tom Guarriello

    Very nicely said, Johnnie. In the US, extraverts rule, so (reflective) introverts are very often left out of any corporate group conversation. That’s why my partner and I try to create space for what my partner and I call the, “quiet voices.”

  3. Alexander Kjerulf

    Great point. I’ve been thinking the same thing and applied it in designing a meeting designer tool kit that groups can use to have more efficient and more fun meetings.

    Part of the kit is a timer that goes off every 30 minutes – meaning it’s time for a break. One participant rolls a 20-sided dice (yes I used to play AD&D) and based on the result the group performs some kind of brief activity. Examples from the list include:

    * 2 minutes of silence

    * Everybody makes a paper ball and throws it at someone else

    * Someone tells a joke

    etc… We’ve tested the kit several times and have seen how productive it is to break the flow of meetings and to create a little time for introspection once in a while.

    The meeting may resume at the same point as it left off, but the tone always shifts slightly, becoming more relaxed afterwards.

  4. vic

    I make the best decisions when I’m not under pressure to make them, being paid to make them in a specific time period, and when I can take time out from thinking about them. There was a recent article somewhere (sorry to be vague) that showed that the subconscious mind is better at working out problems when we don’t actively think about them. I suppose, ‘sleeping on it’ is a good example. But does anyone else find that if they can let go of a problem, stop thinking about, put it on the back-burner, with no pressure, the answer seems to materialise out of nowhere?

    If you applied that to business meetings then you could do all the things suggested in this discussion but not come to any conclusions until the next meeting a couple of weeks away. I’m sure you would get better results


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