The Truth about Teambuilding>
Making Meeting Time Count


First, Fix Your Meetings

“First, fix your meetings,” I heard myself say this to the executive director of human resources at a biopharmaceutical firm. A progressive executive, she is working hard to improve operations in radical ways. Like all good reformers, she wants to do everything at once and realizes she can’t. She asked where I would start.

One of my favorite studies had a great title: “‘Not Another Meeting!’ Are Meeting Time Demands Related to Employee Well-Being?” The research found what I had observed in practice: People do not mind meetings as long as something results from them. I emphasize well-run meetings in my teambuilding work in part because most of that work takes place in meetings. Clean up your meetings and you can have a large impact on team productivity in and between gatherings. Unfortunately, all too many meetings accomplish nothing that an e-mail could not have done as effectively. Most waste huge amounts of labor time in attaining their results. Some actually harm the group in some way, by making people feel disrespected or worse.

Add together the average hourly pay of everyone in your group, plus at least 25% if they get benefits, and you will have the rough cost of an hour-long meeting. No manager I’ve known liked the answer. Yet every place I have worked or consulted at, from Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard to a start-up of five people, has generated complaints about meetings. At every one where I was given the chance, I have been able to eliminate those complaints with simple techniques anyone could use. Let’s run through some typical complaints and see what you can do about each.

“We have too many meetings.”

Root cause: Meetings called without good reason.

Maybe once or twice a year you have big enough news to justify a meeting to share information. The rest of the time, info exchanges are what e-mail and intranets are for.

Nor does every momentary crisis call for a meeting. Refer the issue to the relevant subject-matter expert on the team and ask if they need help. If so and they want a meeting, give everyone who might be impacted the option of attending, but only require those who will fix the problem.

Meetings are for making decisions. Have a meeting when you need to harness the power of groups to make better decisions and unleash innovation. Otherwise, find a less time-consuming way to accomplish your intent.

“Nothing ever comes out of our meetings.”

Root cause: No action items or follow-up system.

Common as mosquitoes and just as annoying is the beast known scientifically as actionless decisionus. Unless the decision is to make no decision, and everyone affected is in the room, a decision should lead to an action. These in turn require a system for making sure those actions take place, or there’s no point to the action item, decision… or meeting!

Have your team agree that a decision is not considered “made” until you have written down:

  • The specific, preferably measurable, action to be taken.
  • Who will be responsible for it.
  • The date by which they agree to complete it.

Have someone on the team take the role of Action Keeper. This person collects every action item in a spreadsheet sorted by due date and informs the facilitator at agenda-setting time what actions have come due since the last team meeting. Those become agenda items, such that the responsible person must report on what they did (or did not) accomplish.

“A couple of people dominate our meetings.”

Root case: No real meeting rules.

Many companies post meeting rules on the walls of their conference rooms which are routinely ignored. Rip them off the walls. Tell your boss I said it was okay.

Have the team answer this question together: “What behaviors waste time in meetings?” Here is the chance to address issues like people talking too much, without naming names. Combine responses as possible and then create for each a rule to stop the behavior plus a method the facilitator can use to enforce it. An example rule is, “Make your point and make way.” Everyone agrees that when the facilitator says, “Thank you—I think you’ve made your point,” the speaker will wrap up.

I am not a fan of artificial time limits on agenda items. They invite the dangers of 1) people talking longer than necessary because they see they have time left, and 2) fruitful discussions getting cut short. Take the steps in this topic and you won’t need them. And don’t get me started on the absurdly outdated, horridly complex Robert’s Rules of Order, which date back to 1876. What other 1870s management techniques do you use?

“I spend all day in meetings.”

Root cause: Discomfort with saying, “no.”

If CEOs can regularly turn down meeting requests, as they must, you aren’t needed in every meeting either (even if others think you are). Anytime you get a request for a meeting you do not think you need to attend, ask the requester these questions:

  • What information would you like me to provide in this meeting, and can I provide it in writing instead?
  • What decision will you be making that will impact my function?
  • Can the agenda be arranged to address the issue at the beginning so I can leave afterward?
  • Can I send someone in my place (an employee or more interested colleague)?

These won’t always work, and you should probably seek permission from your boss before using them with him or her. But every time they do work, you get back time.

The steps in this topic take courage, but if you have any of these complaints and do not try what you can, you are partially at fault. Try them, and you will see positive changes.

Source: Rogelberg, S., D. Leach, P. Warr, and J. Burnfield (2006), “‘Not Another Meeting!’ Are Meeting Time Demands Related to Employee Well-Being?” Journal of Applied Psychology 91(1):86.

How to Get Longer Discussions (and Why You Want Them)

My frustration with airport security has risen to the point where I shudder at the mere thought of flying. I have never been a frequent flyer, with 20 flights the most I took in a single year. But now I take as few as possible. My biggest complaints are irrationality and inconsistency in the U.S. security system. For years they banned nail clippers, but not ball point pens. As a martial artist I could defend myself well with a ball point pen, but I have no idea how to hurt someone with a nail clipper. The policy was irrational, yet they kept it for years. And anyone who has flown through multiple airports knows the rules are not consistent. As I noticed flying between Silicon Valley and Seattle, and comic Paula Poundstone pointed out on a radio program, screeners at one airport insist you put your shoes on the conveyor belt and at the next airport they say to use a container. At each place they speak with equal vehemence, as if you were stupid for not knowing their local rule. I understand some differences in procedure are meant to confuse terrorists, but wearing shoes or not misplaces emphasis on tactics instead of strategy. Throw in the fact that safe airports in more dangerous places like Israel do not use high-tech, high-cost, highly invasive techniques, and I simply don’t understand the American approach.

This rant has only a minor connection to this topic’s study, but I feel better.

One of the gripes about “decision-by-committee” is the time required for discussions. However, there is research evidence that the longer discussions go, the better the average quality of the group’s decisions. The early parts of discussions tend to cover information everybody already knows, say Guihyun Park and Richard DeShon, psychology researchers at Michigan State Univ. Only when that has played out are more novel ideas and previously unshared information likely to spill onto the table. Consistent with this fact, discussions in which minority opinions are expressed and considered also lead to better decisions. This environment prevents the dangers of groupthink, and “encourages teams to develop multiple perspectives on issues…” Park and DeShon write in a study article in the Journal of Applied Psychology. “In addition, when minority opinions are considered, the holders of the minority opinion perceive greater control in the decision process, resulting in increased satisfaction and greater willingness to remain a part of the team.”

After reviewing earlier studies, they conclude the “existing literature clearly demonstrates the importance of incorporating minority opinions into the team decision-making process.” Park and DeShon looked into some factors that might encourage that behavior.

They recruited 171 undergraduate students into 57 three-person teams. These teams performed an airport-screening task developed by a leading teamwork researcher in cooperation with the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (thus triggering my rant). The team viewed luggage pictures taken by TSA X-ray machines and had to decide whether each bag appeared to have a weapon and should be searched. First the team members wrote down their own opinions without talking, also rating how confident they were in the opinion on a five-point scale. Then members shared their thoughts and reached consensus on what to do, taking as much time as they wanted. Their discussions were videotaped, and researchers rated how often people made task-related comments and how engaged they seemed to be (discussion quantity and quality). At various points during the exercise, the members were asked to record individually how much the team as a whole seemed to want to learn and how satisfied each was with the team.

Performance was easy to measure. Teams discussed 20 pictures one at a time. If the team correctly cleared a bag that in fact had no weapon or decided to search a bag that was found to have a weapon, it got 10 points. Otherwise, it got 0 points. How well the team listened to minority opinions was measured by the tape viewers answering this question: When one person had a different opinion initially, how often did the team shift to that person’s decision?

Here is how the factors correlated:

  1. A team’s interest in learning and minority member confidence were linked to the levels and quality of discussion.
  2. Higher and better discussions were linked to higher willingness to adopt the minority position.
  3. This minority influence raised team scores and members’ satisfaction with the team.

In other words, I want to stress, the person in the minority was often right.

The team members had individually come to the same opinion about three out of five times. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the remaining decisions were roughly split between those where the initial majority view became the final decision and those where the minority view won out. But some teams were far more open to discussion and minority influence than others.

The typical suggestion for increasing minority “voice” on teams is to ask someone to take on the Devil’s Advocate role. “However,” Park and DeShon note, “this technique can cause stress for team members, especially those who are selected as the devil’s advocate, and can create unnecessary friction among team members, which may decrease their satisfaction.” Though their study does not prove cause-and-effect, we can say the findings hint at two other methods supported by other studies. One is to encourage the team to learn, by letting it make mistakes and pushing it to come up with solid facts to back its decisions. Another is to allow plenty of time for discussion, the very thing many people complain about in decisions-by-committee.

I believe those complaints do not derive from the time itself but how the time is used. Keep the discussion on topic; use group decision-making methods; praise minority opinions for anything you can find praiseworthy; and stop the discussion only after new ideas or facts have come out. People don’t mind meetings when they feel their time is well used, and that time is a key to getting the best results from the decisions made.

Source: Park, G., and R. DeShon (2010), “A Multilevel Model of Minority Opinion Expression and Team Decision-Making Effectiveness,” Journal of Applied Psychology 95(5):824.

Helping Groups Draw Parallels Improved Problem-Solving

“People are all, to a greater or lesser degree, storehouses of information,” write Bryan Bonner and Michael Baumann. “To the extent that people can effectively pool their knowledge and expertise with others, groups, by extension, become vast resources with immense potential impact.” Professors at the Univ. of Utah and Univ. of Texas at San Antonio, respectively, the pair demonstrated a way to tap that potential in a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Reading a few sentences may be enough to help your team answer problems as well as an expert. To summarize, they say, “encouraging individuals to consider… knowledge they already possess that may be task-relevant positively impacts the quality of group discussion, decisions, and performance.”

In their study, 540 undergraduate students wrote down answers to trivia questions that had numerical answers. Then they were given time to think about the answers for 45 minutes and try again. Half were put into three-person groups to discuss possible answers in that time and the other half worked alone.

Also, each person either read some extra instructions or not. The regular instructions told everybody how to answer the questions. The extra instructions were designed to help people consider what they already knew while doing so. “Even though you may not know the precise answers to these questions,” the additional lines read, “take a moment to reflect on the knowledge that you do possess. To do your best on this task, you must build bridges between what you do know and what you don’t know. You may not know the answer to a given question, but you may know other information that is related to the question. For each question, generate two items of associated knowledge to help you answer as accurately as possible.” They were told to write down those items in addition to their initial answer.

So the study had four “conditions”:

  • Extra instructions and in a group
  • Extra instructions and working alone
  • Regular instructions and in a group
  • Regular instructions and working alone

Overall, the top third of individuals did just as well as groups in coming up with accurate answers. At first I thought this differed from studies showing that groups are better at decision-making than individual experts. Then it clicked with me that this was only one test, and three of the five trivia questions were about geography (such as, “What is the minimum freeway driving distance from Salt Lake City to New York City? What is the population of Utah?”). Thus individuals with a lot of knowledge in geography would be expected to do well. Repeat the test over different topics using the same individuals, and the scientific literature says groups would come out ahead. Indeed, the average answers of all the people in the “working alone” conditions were worse than those of the group averages. In fact, on most of the questions, groups without the help of the extra instructions outperformed individuals that got that help.

Groups that read the extra lines did better than those that didn’t. However, the intervention had no effect on accuracy for top- and middle-scoring individuals, and poor performers actually did worse when they read them. Bonner and Baumann mention studies showing that when poor individual problem-solvers are given questions they know nothing about, they rely too much on whatever facts they have even if those facts are irrelevant, rather than going with their instincts.

How did the extra guidance make a difference? To answer this, the discussions were recorded and analyzed. Groups with that help were more likely to bring up relevant facts in their discussions than those without it. Mentions of relevant expertise were higher as well. The article explains, “Expertise statements were assertions of mastery of a problem domain made either in self-reference (e.g., ‘I do a lot of hiking and know a great deal about mountains’) or in reference to another group member (e.g., ‘Since you mentioned hiking a lot, you must know a great deal about mountains’).”

In other words, most people who read the extra instructions were better at bringing up relevant facts and at recognizing which people on the teams were doing that—at recognizing experts, in other words. This is important. Bonner and Baumann say studies show that teams that make bad decisions tend to rely on the average of members’ positions, or the most extreme positions, rather than weighing facts and expertise. To illustrate, say a team was working on a question for which the answer was “7,” but the members’ individual answers averaged “5.” Poor decision-making teams would probably choose 5, or maybe the extremes of 1 or 10. Good decision-makers would openly talk about facts and expertise and answer 6, 7, or 8.

Bonner and Baumann say the extra-instruction groups did not talk any more than the others. Although other studies indicate quantity of discussion also helps decision making, in the limited time period in this study only the quality of the discussions could make the difference.

When you facilitate your team meetings, you can easily apply these results:

  1. Lead team members to a consensus on a single-sentence question about the problem, preferably with numbers (like, “How can we process 20 more requests per week?”).
  2. Read the extra instructions quoted above.
  3. Ask everyone to write down two facts about similar problems they have faced at any job.
  4. When done, have everyone take turns sharing their two facts, without anyone else commenting.
  5. Open up the floor to discussion about possible solutions.
  6. During the discussion, if something comes up that you know relates to the background of a particular member, ask things like, “Dominick, what is your experience with what Chandra said?”

Problem-solving seems daunting because of the number of unknowns. The simple steps from this study reduces that number by helping people see they know more about the problem than they realize. They may not get the right answer every time, but over time they should do so more often, and get much closer to it when even they don’t hit the mark exactly.

Source: Bonner, B., and M. Baumann (2012), “Leveraging Member Expertise to Improve Knowledge Transfer and Demonstrability in Groups,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 102(2):337.

“Group Intelligence,” or Simply Better Discussions?

Smart teams fail. I’ve personally seen dozens of groups with people smarter than me miss deadlines, overrun budgets, or produce poor-quality, client-enraging results routinely. You can’t walk across the campus of my former workplace, Los Alamos National Laboratory, without tripping over a Nobel laureate. Yet the place has been rife with mismanagement from the top team on down, to be detailed in a later topic.

Rarely do teamwork studies make the news, but reports offering a possible explanation hit U.S. news outlets. These said “group intelligence” trumped individual smarts in tests of team performance. The word “intelligence” has a more specific meaning to scientists than it might to you. First proposed in 1904, the original question was whether someone who does some mental tasks better than others will also do unrelated tasks better. If so, can you then measure this ability in a way that allows you to predict how they will do on the next task? The question has been thoroughly answered by researchers in a resounding, “Yes,” so no one questions that some people are smarter than others.

This may seem like a “duh” finding, but there could have been other answers. As a study report in the journal Science from the group intelligence research team says, it could have been that most people did extremely well on one or two kinds of tasks, or their relative skills were so random that it was impossible to use intelligence to predict future performance. The team was led by organizational behavior professor Anita Woolley of Carnegie-Mellon Univ. Another member was psychologist Christopher Chabris of Union College, whose ball-passing video experiment went viral. (People are told to count the number of times a ball is passed between members of two teams in the video, and in doing so almost all completely miss the person in a gorilla suit walking through the scene.)

Woolley’s team asked the next question: Is there a group intelligence that acts like personal intelligence, but is something separate? Previous studies had used the average intelligence of all team members, or the rating of the smartest in the bunch, but not attempted to describe what this team calls “collective intelligence” or the “c factor.” The team recruited people in Boston and Pittsburgh for two studies. Researchers tested the intelligence of the individuals along with some other traits, and then had them work in groups of two to five on two sets of tests. One set had general tests such as “solving visual puzzles, brainstorming, making collective moral judgments, and negotiating over limited resources.” In one study the groups also played checkers against a computer, choosing moves jointly, and in the other they did an architectural design.

How well the team did on one general test was linked to how well it did on others, and the score on those tests predicted how well it did on the more complex task. However, neither the average intelligence of the members or the score of the smartest member were related to the group’s success. What the researchers called the “c factor” was something else, and it explained nearly 45% of the difference between groups in their performances.

Further tests found that out of “a number of group and individual factors that might be good predictors of c,” only three were: social sensitivity, specifically the ability to read someone’s emotions through their eyes; how many and how much people joined in the group’s conversations; and the percentage of females in the group. However, the authors point out that females typically rate higher on social sensitivity, so those factors are related. Other possibilities you might expect to relate to performance, “such as group cohesion, motivation, and satisfaction” or personality, were not related to collective intelligence. Higher involvement in discussions by more people was a bigger part of the c factor than were average or highest individual intelligence, with sensitivity less related.

In the news reports, scientists not involved in the studies questioned whether sensitivity was the same thing as intelligence. The sensitivity test the team used has pictures of the eyes of actors and measures the ability to pick out their mood from a list. You can take the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test” and judge for yourself. I found one reason I’m a coach: I read emotions well, scoring a 34 out of 36 (94%). The average score is around 26 (72%) according to the results page and these studies.

Combine that with the discussion measure, and what this study really shows is if you pit two teams of equally smart (or not smart) people against each other, the one that has better conversations will usually win. “Better” means more people talk more often, rather than the discussions being dominated by a few people. The ability to read nonverbal communication aids such discussions, because people can tell when someone wants to talk or is upset. Given that better talk was a stronger predictor of success than average intelligence, a team of smarter people can be outperformed by a better-talking team (though only up to a point, given the finding that average intelligence correlated with the c factor).

This makes the results less newsworthy. We already knew from prior research that teams which have open debates outperform those that don’t. What this study adds is one piece of why that is true: The discussion effect is so strong, it can cancel the advantage of team-member intelligence somewhat. I’m not saying there is no such thing as collective intelligence, but I don’t think this study has found it.

The findings suggest that if you talk too much or too little, you are hurting your team even if you’re the smartest person in the room. If you’re on a five-person team and talk much more than 20% of the time during meetings, this means you. The same is true if you never speak up. Even the most introverted of folks can find ways to participate. Pass a note to the facilitator. Raise your hand like in school. If you want time to think about a decision the team is making, listen, ask for a deferral, and send an e-mail to the team with your thoughts.

Finally, if you’re the facilitator, it’s part of the job to ask dominators to give others a chance and silent partners to share their thoughts. By doing so, you can smarten up the whole group without hiring a Nobel laureate—or maybe in spite of her.


Run a Pleasant yet Productive Meeting

When you next run a meeting, would you like to:

  • Achieve your “must-have” meeting objectives?
  • Achieve your “nice-to-have” objectives?
  • Incite passion for the work without conflict?
  • Adjourn early?
  • Get a round of applause?

That’s what the North American Laminate Flooring Association’s leadership did in June of 2012 in a strategic planning session with your humble author facilitating. Although I can’t guarantee you that last bullet point, I am happy to share with you how the rest of it was done. You are perfectly capable of doing the same in your meetings if you follow some basic steps to channel group dynamics rather than work against them. More and more research shows that the way humans behave in a situation has more to do with the environment than the personalities involved. When you facilitate, you have significant control over that environment, by which I mean a lot more than just the temperature.

The NALFA attendees had as broad a range of personalities and personal agendas—which I do not consider a bad thing—as you will run into in any meeting. Yet they came together to produce challenging though viable strategic goals, milestones, and action items. I cannot share the details for reasons of confidentiality, of course, but you would be impressed with the quantity and quality of their meeting results. There was passion and disagreement but no outright conflict, and every person agreed to at least one post-meeting action item.

If you want to match their results, do what they did.

Follow an agenda. I provided a formal agenda for each step of the day and kept to it. This was an all-day affair, so I had 12 items, but I have put out two-item agendas for half-hour meetings. Included on the agenda were steps I rarely see on other facilitators’ yet find very useful in my meetings, including a reminder of the meeting’s goals from the meeting sponsor, discussion of the rules, and a final review of action items to build commitment.

Build personal connections. Instead of the usual “ice-breaker” games that bring no systematic knowledge of the room, I use a deeper level of introductions. This elicits information which can build real connections and even be leveraged during the group’s time together. In this case, since most attendees knew each other already, I asked them to name two careers or industries they had been in prior to laminate flooring, and what they did for fun. Later I heard people talking about common interests they hadn’t known about, and refer to lessons from their prior positions during discussions.

Apply meeting rules. I told the group the meeting rules I had selected, explained each along with how it saved time, and asked if they were willing to use them or wanted revisions. One person asked, “Do we have a choice?”

“Absolutely,” I answered, explaining this was, after all, their meeting.

Another person said, “Let’s try them,” and they adhered to them nicely the rest of the day, which contributed greatly to the success. One mistake I made was forgetting to put the rules on the back of the agenda.

By the way, there were high-level corporate executives in the room, but all agreed to turn off their electronics during the sessions. This kept the focus on each other and prevented a lot of time-wasting behaviors. You know what I’m talking about!

Use written techniques. To make sure everyone was comfortable providing input, I used a technique in which each person suggested one strategic goal in writing and everyone commented on everyone else’s the same way. Then they took turns stating their suggestions and responding to the comments. Even the introverts spoke up in some detail. After subgroups categorized the ideas, I used other written techniques to prioritize the categories and rank-order people’s preferences for which ones they wanted to work on. That last method also allowed me to put most people into their first or second choice out of five, ensuring each had eager volunteers. (One man graciously accepted his third choice to make things work out.)

Be rude—with fair warning. While explaining the rules, I said with advance apologies that I would interrupt people if needed for the sake of the group. I did just that when side conversations broke out. When one member tried to go back to an idea that had been dropped due to low interest, I pointed out the “No backtracking” rule. As the applause I got suggests, people will appreciate your keeping them on track when they see the benefits.

Keep everyone SMART. From the moment we started idea-gathering, I insisted all goals be:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Action-based
  • Realistic
  • Time-bound

Action items, too, had to be SMART and include a responsible person in addition to any helpers. Agreeing on tangible or measurable deliverables, naming names, and adding dates greatly increase the odds of something getting done.

Take frequent breaks. One reason people cooperated with the “No electronics” rule was I had promised we would go no more than 90 minutes between breaks and make them long enough for message-checking. I threw in a couple of mini-breaks when I could, and lunch was 75 minutes so people had down time to call or recharge after eating.

Again, I apply these general principles to every meeting I run, from a half-hour to two days long. Studies suggest that people enjoy meetings if they feel their input is valued and positive changes result. They don’t mind meetings; they mind bad meetings. Good ones require of you as the facilitator only this: self-discipline. Take the time to learn and apply formal meeting facilitation techniques, and you will save far more time for participants. The NALFA meeting adjourned 50 minutes early. Have the guts to enforce the rules, and you may not get a round of applause, but you will get the satisfaction of having helped people turn the maligned task of a meeting into the useful, perhaps even pleasurable, social interaction it can be.

How to Satisfy Your Meeting Attendees

Bad feelings about meetings “may lead attendees to have pessimistic attitudes toward meetings, avoid meetings, undermine and not support meeting outcomes, or behave dysfunctionally in meetings.” I bet you are nodding in agreement.

This quotation comes from a review of meeting research in a study involving one of the experts on the topic, organizational scientist Steven Rogelberg of the Univ. of North Carolina at Charlotte. He was the lead scientist for the study mentioned above, “‘Not Another Meeting!’ Are Meeting Time Demands Related to Employee Wellbeing?”

For the current study, a research team looked into other factors that might impact those feelings, factors they called “meeting design characteristics.” You might be surprised by some of what they learned. Led by Melissa Cohen of Carlson Marketing for her master’s degree thesis, the team also involved psychologists Joseph Allen of Creighton Univ. and Alexandra Luong of the Univ. of Minnesota Duluth.

They reviewed scientific and business literature to identify 18 factors under a facilitator’s control that experts believe impact meeting quality. Through a pilot test with a panel of workers, they also developed an assessment they called the Perceptions of Meeting Quality (PMQ) Scale. From a large database of study volunteers, the researchers surveyed a random sample of workers who had participated in a repeating meeting of co-workers in the prior 48 hours. They ended up with 367 participants. The sample does not match the general workforce, however. Most respondents had a college education, 51% were managers, and 65% were women.

Strongly related to PMQ for these people were:

  • Quality of the meeting space (a correlation of 0.29).
  • Starting on time (0.29).
  • Lighting quality (0.25).

Weaker but still significant links included:

  • Room temperature (0.17).
  • Ending on time (0.16).
  • Distributing an agenda before the meeting (0.14).
  • Use of agreements such as meeting rules (0.14).
  • Number of attendees (–0.11, the negative number showing that larger meetings were less satisfying).
  • Having refreshments available (0.11).

Not related to PMQ were the use of a facilitator in smaller meetings; the length of the meeting; whether minutes or other records (such as videos) were kept; and whether the meeting was via technology or face-to-face. More on most of these in a moment.

Clearly, room conditions were a big deal. Being in a comfortable room with decent lighting and some soft drinks makes even a boring event more tolerable, I suppose. The researchers assume the 18 factors “are generally under the control of the meeting organizer,” but I disagree on these. Most managers have a limited number of conference rooms to choose from, and cannot change the lighting and temperature in those rooms. If their organizations do not provide snacks, facilitators should not be expected to do so out of their own pockets every time. So let’s focus on the items that are fully under your control when you facilitate.

Normally I would hesitate to make recommendations based on the first study I’ve found of its type, especially one not designed to prove the factors caused the results and whose participants do not match the general workplace. However, most of these findings support my prior research and facilitation experience. Regarding those, I’ll let the team recommend for itself:

  • “Prior to the meeting, meeting organizers should carefully consider the list of meeting attendees, and only attendees central to the meeting’s purpose should be invited.” Among other reasons, this keeps the meeting as small as possible.
  • “The organizer should also create an agenda and distribute it to all attendees prior to the meeting to enable attendees to prepare for the designated topics.” Earlier the article notes, “Simply having a meeting guide or agenda that does not allow for premeeting preparation does not seem to add value.”
  • “At the start of the meeting, the meeting organizer should ensure that the meeting begins at the predetermined start time, even if all attendees have not yet arrived.”
  • “Then, a meeting agreement (this can be informal) that addresses the meeting’s topical and behavioral ground rules should be set forth.”
  • “Lastly, the meeting should end at or before the predetermined end time.”

As you saw earlier, meeting length was not a big deal. If people think their time is well spent, they will come back. Early in my career I facilitated a two-day meeting with a range of folks from clerical staff to upper managers. Though using these and similar techniques, I still was pleasantly shocked when everyone showed up for the second day or sent a replacement to whom they had given their voting power.

Regarding the finding on facilitators, we have to examine the limits of the study, as the scientists do. They only “inquired whether or not a characteristic was present, not how well it was integrated or used,” they write. A lousy facilitator may be less satisfying than none at all, in other words, and average out the positive impact of a good facilitator.

Whether or not minutes were recorded had no impact, which brings up another limitation. The study only looked at satisfaction, not decision quality or meeting results. Minutes might not impact satisfaction with a single meeting within 48 hours. But they could impact whether meeting decisions have any effect on the workplace, which in turn, Rogelberg’s earlier study found, impacts general satisfaction with time spent in meetings. I have not found detailed minutes worth the scribing time, however. Notes briefly summarizing topics—a sentence or two each—plus agreements and action items have proven sufficient.

The research team recommends training everyone in your organization who leads meetings to do these things, and training everyone else on the parts affecting their roles as attendees. I go a step further. I recommend teams train everyone to facilitate and rotate the role. There’s no better way to get every member cooperating fully with the facilitator every time!

I am biased, of course, since I used to teach a class on facilitating. So it is comforting to report that scientists who weren’t paid by me reached the same conclusions that I taught.

Source: Cohen, M., S. Rogelberg, J. Allen, and A. Luong (2011), “Meeting Design Characteristics and Attendee Perceptions of Staff/Team Meeting Quality,” Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice 15(1):90.

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