The importance of good meeting design
To help leaders become excellent planners and conductors of their meetings, we invited Prof. Dr. John Kello from Davidson College, and President of J.E. Kello & Associates Inc., to share with us his expertise.
As the 'new normal' settles in, and organisations step into a new phase of their existence, leaders need to know: How performant is my organisation? In what way can meetings influence that, and what are the 'musts' of an effective meeting?
To answer these questions, and more, we invited Prof. Dr. John Kello to share with us his expertise. He researches and consults on the High-Performance Organisation (HPO) model, and the development of sustainable positive organisational cultures.
During his career, he published more than 100 articles in prestigious journals. Prof. Kello teaches Industrial-Organisational Psychology at Davidson College, and he is also the President of, and Senior Consultant with J.E. Kello & Associates, Inc., an Organisation Development (OD) consulting firm.
In the interview, he talks about the HPO model, meeting design and meeting types as well as about the role of meetings in a hybrid set-up.
Your work focuses on the High-Performance Organisation model (HPO), and on designing meetings that help increase productivity. What is 'meeting design'? Which meeting practices are 'a must' to enable effective meetings?
Prof. John Kello: The High-Performance Organisation (HPO) is the framework within which my entire research and consulting operates. The model is an alternative to the old traditional machine model, or the mechanical assembly line type of model, of an organisation. It's built for flexibility, so it can be reconfigured to be adaptable. Plus, it's based on high employee involvement, participation and engagement. The model also depends on the leadership style, where leaders help and support rather than dictate. The HPO model is the most contemporary model that organisations are striving toward. So, they are prone to design meetings that are compatible with the goals of the HPO model. Meeting design is for success, and builds organisations to engage employees to take part, and give their input.
On meeting types, there are many different meeting types, and research has become more nuanced. Most of the legitimate research focuses on the most common meeting type: the recurring staff meeting, also known as the department meeting or the team meeting. In general, my comments here about meeting design will focus on this most common type of meeting. But, I will also take the opportunity to briefly mention other variations.
Our research focuses not only on that most common meeting type, it focuses also on meetings that are internal to the organisation, i.e., on employee-to-employee meetings. The reality is that there are also a lot of external meetings, with customers, suppliers, regulators, and potential hires. These external meetings, important as they are, are not the focus of meeting-science research at this point.
So, to your question: What are the 'musts' of an effective meeting? They break down into three successive components:
- the pre-planning, the preparation of a meeting
- the meeting, the process during the meeting, and
- the after the meeting, the follow-up of a meeting
1. The pre-planning
The most critical element is the purpose of the meeting. Why are we meeting? What are we there to accomplish? If the answer to that is 'I don't know' or there is no purpose, then there's no need for a meeting. The purpose is critical, followed by the agenda, which is the roadmap to get us to that goal. The meeting agenda becomes critical once we have a clear purpose.
Who needs to be at the meeting? Who are the critical stakeholders whose presence and participation is essential? What ground rules, if any, do we need to make sure we stay on track, and that everyone has an equal voice opportunity? When do we meet? How long should we meet? What technology will we need?
Note that when meetings are virtual or hybrid, we have to plan to rely heavily on technology. And, how will we take notes? How will we disseminate those notes? How can we design our meetings so we're minimising back-to-back meetings? It's not so much the amount of time I spend in them, it's the number of meetings, for which I need to prepare, and follow-up after. These are pre-planning issues, and again, the purpose of the meeting is fundamental.
2. The meeting
One of the most critical aspects with meetings is starting on time. It turns out to be one of the factors that influences satisfaction with the meeting. For example, if I come to a meeting at the scheduled start time of 9:30, but the meeting did not start until 9:45, it's automatically a bad meeting for me and anyone else who came on time.
Another aspect is staying on agenda, and having interactive and participative meetings. Use the ground rules to make sure that the meeting has full participation, and that it stays on track. Summarise and recap along the way. A critical piece is to have specific action assignments that everyone agrees to. Who is going to do what? When and how will we follow up on what we've committed to in the meeting? Finally, stop no later than the scheduled stop time. It's OK to stop early. It's not OK to stop late.
3. The after the meeting
After the meeting, circulate the meeting minutes and track the follow-up assignments. Plus, and this is not done enough, get feedback from participants. How are our meetings going? How effective are they? What could I, as the leader or other participants, do to make them more effective?
Our research shows that the leader of the meeting is prone to see meetings as being more effective and positive than participants. So, getting that neutral feedback is helpful. Finally, build meeting assessment into employee opinion surveys. This is also not done enough, and it's something that should be done for the long-term.
Many companies do regular annual employee opinion surveys. They ask: What are your thoughts? What are your attitudes? How do you feel about this 'topic'? Rarely do they ask: How are your staff meetings? How do you feel about your department meetings? Meetings have such a profound impact on job satisfaction. It would be extremely helpful to sample that from time to time.
For example, the meeting value score is a great tool that is not widely used. We have the tools to do a meeting assessment; it is just a matter of putting them in practice.
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The 4 "P"s (Purpose, People, Process and Progress) are essential. What about Technology as a 5th element? How has its role evolved?
Prof. John Kello: The role (i.e. of technology) has been evolving for decades. The pandemic accelerated that evolution of the use of technology in our meetings. Global businesses have been using virtual or hybrid meetings for a long time. Many team meetings had been hybrid anyway, when one or two members were not available for the in-person meeting, and called in instead. But with the pandemic, face-to-face, around the conference table meetings had to go virtual. In many cases, in-person meetings were no longer possible because of the restrictions.
We learnt that using technology in remote meetings is perhaps not as comfortable as face-to-face meetings. Yet, a lot of routine communication can be conducted remotely. A remote meeting that might otherwise bring participants in from all over the country may be effective enough, and can save huge amounts of money.
For example, one of my clients estimated saving in 2020 more than 1 Million dollars in the costs of meetings. Before considering the hybrid meeting model, they would have a quarterly meeting with executives flying in from California, Florida, Virginia, and Texas to a central location. They would all have expenses with plane tickets, rent-a-cars, and hotels. The information transfer over a day or two could have been done in a couple of remote meetings. This would obviously save on travel expenses, plus all the non-productive travel time.
Technology improved dramatically, and it is an important point from early video conferencing. We are now using Skype or Zoom or Microsoft teams. Technology made this possible, and enhanced some of the personal connections. I strongly believe that the 'new normal', or the 'next normal', will involve the continued use of this technology for virtual meetings and hybrid meetings. Technology in our meetings is here to stay.
For instance, I did research into healthcare. One of the stats showed that before the pandemic, doctor's visits were 2% done virtually. During the pandemic, about 70% were done virtually. I don't imagine returning to 2%. You can use technology to have a five minutes' conversation with your doctor, and save hours.
From your experience in consulting across industries, if an organisation aims to adopt the HPO model, is changing their meeting culture a step in the right direction? Are there any differences in meeting design for different industries and/or meeting types (e.g. C-suite, Upper-management, Steering committees meetings)?
Prof. John Kello: In many ways meetings represent the organisation in a compressed way. The staff meeting, for instance, which we are focused on most, reveals how the organisation operates, how efficient it is, and what are its priorities. Our research has shown that employees' attitudes towards meetings correlates with their job satisfaction. There is a very strong relationship between the two. When it's positive, that is great, but when it's negative, it's a challenge. Bad meetings affect morale, and so the impact of a meeting extends well beyond the boundaries of that meeting. It has a wider, general impact.
An organisation intending to follow the HPO model aims to be flexible, market-oriented, and team-based. For this to be possible, they need to find a way to make their meetings support their organisational culture. Their meetings need to be effective and efficient. They need to offer opportunities for building teamwork, collaboration and engagement. Moreover, they need to value employees' inputs. Some of the organisations I work with, which are most effective with their meetings, are organisations that embraced the HPO model. To a great extent, meetings have to reflect your overall way of communicating. This should engage teams, which should have supervisors who facilitate rather than command.
Meeting culture represents the organisational culture and high performance meetings reflect that.
On the issue of different industries having different types of meetings, I would say first that every industry has many different types of meetings. This is an area of research I've been passionate about. Focusing on the staff meeting is a great starting point. Yet, the reality is much richer and has more nuances. From my experience, different industries do indeed have different types of meetings.
An example: In the airline industry, pilots have crew formation meetings at the start of each month. At the end of that month, pilots board with a different group than the one they had a crew formation meeting with at the beginning of that month. This is not a staff meeting. It has to build a team and establish how they are going to operate. It has different parameters from the staff meeting.
Another example: First responders, such as police and fire departments, have a specific type of debrief meeting called 'the after action review'. After a call, the crew reviews how they did, if they had the proper tools to do it, and whether everyone was on the same page. It's the moment when they ask themselves 'Did they solve the problem?' and 'How can they do it more effectively in the future?'
In any organisation, individual employees may experience a wide range of meeting types. In a factory, for example, they have the daily shift meetings where the oncoming and off going shifts share information on operating effectively and safely. In factories, they also have regular safety meetings when accidents occur. They may also have quality circle meetings, corrective action team meetings, or even steering committee meetings. Also, many organisations have regular town hall meetings, where employees meet once or twice a year or more frequently, for business updates from their leadership. Some use the General Electric workout meetings, which involve employees in identifying and solving problems.
All have different forms of team meetings, and none of these meetings are the generic staff meeting. They all have their particular characteristics, and may require different strategies to enhance meeting effectiveness. And teams do often adjust strategies to fit the realities of different meeting types. Professor Joe Allen and I have published a book chapter which focuses on identifying a taxonomy of different meeting types, and strategies that are distinctive for each type.
Further, we are told that on average, an employee spends six hours a week in meetings, while managers spend 23 hours a week in meetings. These figures are widely cited, yet, they obviously do not refer to staff meetings alone. No manager has a 23 hour staff meeting. So, what we haven't done is take a person-centred approach to meetings. In our research, we haven't asked about the different types of meetings people attend.
When we say that about 50% of meetings are perceived as ineffective, are we suggesting that half of all the meetings that participants attend are ineffective? Staff meetings or one-on-one meetings with managers might be seen as very ineffective, but safety committee meetings or shift-change meetings might be seen as highly effective, yielding to 50% average. It is hard to give a meaningful answer to the question because we are involved in five, six, seven different types of meetings each month, some of which might be great and some of which might be poor. The 50% figure is an average that might not apply specifically to any of our meetings. Clearly this is an area for further research and application in meeting science.
With C-suite meetings, directors typically focus more on strategy. They aim at having a broader, long-term view on opportunities, threats, challenges that can come up with market shifts, and changing consumer demands. In comparison, middle-managers' meetings are usually much more focused on intermediate-term view, and the coordination of activities.
Some of the least effective meetings that I've seen have been C-suite meetings. In these, directors can be prone to dominate the meeting, by virtue of their leadership position. Yet, upon evaluation of these meetings, research reveals that directors commonly perceive their meetings as efficient and effective, much more than their participants do. So, being part of C-suite doesn't automatically empower directors to be excellent planners and conductors of meetings.
On the role of meetings in the 'new normal', should directors be more aware of the importance of good 'meeting design'? How can they reach that level of awareness faster?
Prof. John Kello: That's a great question. I just touched on the point that leaders of meetings see their meetings differently than their participants do. If participants assessed meetings in a safe, anonymous way, then directors would discover what's called 'a blind spot' in meetings. They would see that their views on meetings are not identical to that of their participants. Research and literature has shown this for a long time. Leaders are generally prone to see their meetings as much more positive than participants. So, meeting assessment and feedback are important points, but often neglected.
Meetings have been seen as a “necessary evil” for a long time, but meetings are here to stay. The problem is not meetings in general, but bad meetings. Good meetings have a positive effect on morale and job satisfaction. The main point is to stop meetings that are not effective.
Our science has provided guidance on good meeting design. The challenge is getting that information out there to be used. I'm excited to see that evidence-based articles are becoming more accessible to managers. While few executives read the Journal of Applied Psychology, many read sources like the Harvard Business Review, which are now publishing articles by some of the leading meeting science researchers.
There are even books on meetings, books which are evidence-based and which are written in a way that is accessible to the public. For example, the book on 'The Surprising Science of Meetings' by Professor Steven Rogelberg is an accessible overview of what we know about meetings, and how to make them more effective.
My colleagues and I are also encouraging organisations to build into their leadership training programs meeting management as one of the skill sets. The focus in such programs in general is on goal setting, performance management, team building, communication skills, and resolving conflicts. Those are all valuable management skills. But how about building into such programs meeting design and meeting management skills? That addition would greatly enhance the value of leadership development programs.
Bottom line, it is my belief that leaders need to be fully aware of the massive impact good meetings versus waste of time meetings have.
There is an increasing attention among organisations and their teams towards hybrid meetings. What is your view on this new trend?
Prof. John Kello: Hybrid meetings have been with us for a while, even from before the pandemic. As I noted earlier, it was not uncommon in staff meetings for one or two members to be unavailable for the live meeting. One of the points I made in my research was that even though such meetings were primarily face-to-face, they were really hybrid meetings. That is because someone had to patch in. They would be on the phone, while the rest of participants would be sitting around the meeting table. That's not a comfortable hybrid meeting. The mindset has been that the person calling in is an observer, and not a full participant. The action in the meeting happened with the 'live' participants.
What's different now as the technology has improved, and we see its benefits, is that the focus has shifted. Chances are it's not only one individual who is traveling. There may be two or three (or more) that are patching into the meeting by Zoom or Skype from their homes. Now it is more about the needs of the remote participants, and having them engaged and taking part in the meeting fully.
On hybrid meetings, a lot of the guidelines boil down simply to “engage with the remote attendees as equal participants in the meeting”. There are sources that offer guidelines on how to structure your hybrid meetings. This is to help you to reach your goals, and make participants feel like they are equal participants, in effect sitting in the same room with the team around the conference table. Because in effective hybrid meetings, remote participants must be full participants.
Some sources suggest asking remote participants for their input first, while some recommend using the chat feature. There are others which suggest having everyone remote, even though the live participants are at the same table. The goal of this strategy is for all participants to be 'live' and remote at the same time. The overarching goal of all of these strategies is to have remote participants fully engaged, and to use the capacities of the advanced technology to help bring the engagement of the remote participants on a par with the participation of the in-person participants.