"Executives average 23 hours per week in meetings...
7.8 hours of the 23 are unnecessary and poorly run...
This equals 2.3 months per year."
-- from http://www.mcnellisco.com
Last week we talked about lost productivity especially as it related to meetings and asked for your thoughts on why meetings are still so ineffective when we have such a plethora of books, article, workshops and techniques to make them better.
I decided to ask one of the wisest people I know (Jerry McNellis, founder and director of the Compression Planning Institute) why we’re in this state and, as usual, he had a perspective worth thinking about. "First of all," he said, "the problem isn’t with meetings."
That was enough to grab my attention, and, perhaps yours. Here are some of Jerry’s thoughts:
Even worse than the statistics on meetings is the data about projects. There are many studies about the dismal rate of success for projects. One that I use a lot comes from the Standish Group which tracks information technology projects. There findings are that 23% of the projects were outright failures, 49% were over budget or didn’t meet the deliverables and 28% were deemed successes. 94% of all projects are restarted and average $2.22 spent for every dollar budgeted.
The results for all projects in general are probably pretty similar. And the question is "Why?" Why is the success rate for projects so low? And, why do meetings tend to be so ineffective? The real issue is an organization’s thinking system. Meetings and projects are simply a reflection of the ability of an organization to think collaboratively. We spend very little time improving this ability and almost no effort measuring it.
Collaborative thinking is the engine that drives positive results ... and bad results. Therefore, collaborative thinking is one of the single most important components in an organization. Good thinking leads to new products, services, and processes; bad thinking creates angry customers, wasted time, lost opportunities, unfocused action reflected in 94% of all projects being restarted and ineffective meetings.
Good, collaborative thinking doesn’t just happen. People need a structure and understood process for thinking together productively. Meetings should have a common process, a predictable flow so people know when and how to participate. Collective time needs to be orchestrated so that people know the purpose of the meeting and how they contribute their skills and information. This structure needs to support listening as well as sharing.
Structure does not limit; it liberates. The people most liberated by structure are the introverts who may never be heard from in a typical meeting managed by an extrovert who assumes that everyone will freely jump into the conversation. In order to be truly effective, meetings need to designed in a way that engages all the different thinking and communication styles present. Otherwise, there is little purpose in inviting people who do not feel comfortable participating.
If the meeting is focused on making a strategic decision, we spend as much as ten hours of design time for every hour of meeting time. We want people to think together, not just listen to reports or information that could have been distributed in other ways. Getting people together is expensive, too expensive not to engage their best thinking around important issues. We focus most of our thinking meetings at the strategy level with just enough content presentation to make sure people have a firm grasp on the elements of the issue. This means giving people information prior to the meeting and providing content that has been boiled down to the bare essentials. It means developing visual representations and prototypes of the information so that people can interact with it on different levels. It also means understanding that most strategies fail and deliberately looking for alternatives.
One of the most fundamental aspects of our meeting design process is making sure there is an absolutely clear statement of the purpose of the meeting. Interestingly, one of the things we discovered early on that made our meetings far more effective was to be equally clear about the "non-purposes" of the meeting. Once people understood what was outside the scope of the meeting, they could focus their energies on the task at hand.
How we think together is a reflection of our culture and until we are ready to look at this entire process, meeting and strategic decision making inefficiency and poor project performance will continue to be just symptoms. We will probably have the same discussion about meetings and projects 25 years from now unless we start to address the collaborative thinking systems in our organizations.
For more information about Jerry McNellis and his processes, go to http://www.mcnellisco.com.