Benjamin Franklin once said: "time is money". Even today his words linger in the business world where many leaders still perceive meetings as an inevitable waste of time and, therefore, money. This perception, though, is not a "universal rule" and, even assuming it was a rule, many companies now dare break it. More and more organisations started moving away from meetings as "a necessary evil" to meetings as a strategic resource, worth investing in.
To shed more light on this complicated issue and understand better the correlation between meetings and their return on investment (ROI), we invited meeting expert, Chancellor’s Professor, Humboldt Prize winner, and author of the new book published by Oxford, The Surprising Science of Meetings, Prof. Dr. Steven G. Rogelberg, from the University of North Carolina Charlotte, to share with us, in this exclusive interview, his knowledge and findings on what makes meetings truly work. In addition to explaining some of the key drivers which help enhance the quality of meetings, Dr. Rogelberg advances several recommendations for leaders on how to boost meeting efficiency and ROI.
Sherpany: Why are meetings still so popular among leaders?
Dr. Rogelberg: Besides being essential to communication and coordination, meetings are where voice, inclusion, and organisational democracy can come to life. Meetings, in many ways, represent an evolution in organisations since the turn of century when boss-knows-best systems dominated. It is a recognition that diversity of perspectives and ideas matters. It is a recognition that people can do great and innovative things together. It is a recognition that doing activities to engender consensus and buy-in is critical to motivation, perseverance, and resilience. Too many organisations sit idly by and accept poor meetings as a way of organisational life. They are wrong. Meetings can be improved, and done right can be key to employee engagement, innovation, productivity, and teamwork.
Sherpany: Meetings are a significant financial investment for organisations. Why do most companies and their management teams still view unproductive meetings as inevitable costs of doing business?
Dr. Rogelberg: This is a really interesting question. The base rate of bad meeting is just way too high. People, perhaps, assume that this is just how things are. It is considered the new norm and leaders get comfortable with it. At the same time, the banal everyday advice to improve meetings has not worked. This is actually why I wrote my book. I wanted to bring evidence-based meeting insights forward. There truly is an intriguing and surprising science of meetings that can move the dial on meeting effectiveness.
Sherpany: How can directors and senior managers assess the ROI of their meetings in order to make better cost investments?
Dr. Rogelberg: There are multiple layers to this question. Our research has shown that leaders are not highly effective at evaluating their meeting leadership skills. In fact, their self-perception is inflated. They think they are better than they actually are at running meetings. This is concerning in that they may not be highly motivated to make changes as they believe the meeting problem lies with other leaders, but they are doing fine. Given this, organisations and boards need to build systems to assess meetings.
The easiest one to do is to administer a survey around meetings. Learn about base rates, effectiveness, common problems, blind spots, and potential solutions. Communicate findings to all stakeholders and then re-administer the survey periodically. This serves to elevate the topic of meetings and ultimately creates accountability in that the results can be organised by departments and levels from staff meeting to board meetings. At the very least, build some meeting questions into your employee engagement survey efforts. Given the sheer amount of time employees spend in meetings, not doing this is a tremendous oversight.
Sherpany: In your upcoming book, The Surprising Science of Meetings, you talk about key drivers that make meetings successful. Which are some of these key drivers and why are they considered essential to making meetings exceptional?
Dr. Rogelberg: My book is a large collection of evidence-based insights. It represents a strategic approach leaders and organisations can take that are highly practical and accessible, but strongly based in science. Strategic is really the key. As to genuinely positively affect meetings, you have to address the system. Key pieces of that system are the people, the processes, and the context the meeting is taking place. These pieces are all connected to one another, but each has to be attended to in meaningful ways.
Sherpany: From our experience, there are 3 main axes to consider when aiming to enhance meetings' efficiency & effectiveness: people - organisation (rules & processes) - technology. What is your opinion on this? How can the alignment of the three axes transform meetings from time consuming, draining, frustrating gatherings into valuable business tools?
Dr. Rogelberg: I would generally agree and commend you for taking this perspective. Meetings have to contain the right people given the goals of the meeting. Spectators have to minimised. Meeting size needs to be lean, so that attendees can’t just blend into the background. Accountability and engagement must be the norm. The leader has to be tremendously prepared and recognise her/his role as a genuine facilitator. As facilitator of candid communication, meeting processes will be dynamic, inclusive, and genuine.
At the same time, the meeting leader can use so many different types of tools to make the meeting process work, from silent brainstorming, to dyadic work, to pre-meeting idea generation, to role-player. Furthermore, a host of technological tools can be leveraged that allow for anonymous input and voting. And, this speaks to overall context; mix up seating arrangements, meet in different places, stand-up at times, walk at times, etc.
Sherpany: What is your recommendation for directors, boards and other organisational teams with respect to boosting meeting efficiency and meetings' ROI for the following years?
Dr. Rogelberg: I have so many different pieces of advice for leaders. Let me leave you with one key piece applicable to all meetings, but especially boards, and encourage your readers to visit my website where I discuss more.
Research demonstrates the importance of preparatory mindset to driving sports performance, educational success, and leader effectiveness – how we think about something influences our behaviors, tactics, and our choices. Meeting leaders who genuinely embrace the notion of wanting to be an excellent steward of others’ time will prepare for meetings in a manner that honors and maximises time for all. They won’t want to just come unprepared, instead that actively make decisions that genuinely benefit the collective and are committed to designing a useful and productive meeting experience.
Thus, meeting leaders embody their key role of being a facilitator and ensuring that the meeting is meeting all needs that need to be achieved. Instead of highlighting his/her abilities, the leader looks to involve others, actively asks questions to facilitate discussion, manages time effectively, actively listens to attendees, is open to hearing about concerns, and manages conflicts that arise. Actually, the leader derives power and influence by being cognizant of employees’ time and caring for their mental health rather than being too controlling. This does not mean that the leader cannot be directive—he/she still can be in order to move the discussion forward. But, by employing a mindset of being a steward of others’ time, the leader will appear as more genuine and attendees will be more engaged and willing to provide input.
Sherpany: Thank you, Dr. Rogelberg.
Prof. Dr. Rogelberg’s newest book, "The Surprising Science of Meetings: How You Can Lead Your Team to Peak Performance" (Oxford), was just released.