Efficient Meetings, Effective Decisions
According to John Tropman, professor of social work at the University of Michigan and author of Making Meetings Work: Achieving High Quality Group Decisions, well-run meetings consist of three elements: announcements, decisions, and brainstorming. This straightforward structure belies the lived experience of many who endure long, seemingly pointless meetings that accomplish little.
The problem with inefficient meetings is that they can create a self-fulfilling prophecy: people experience a poorly run meeting (or a string of poorly run meetings), which lowers their expectations, and they act in accordance with those lowered expectations. They come late, leave early, or don’t show up at all. A loosely structured meeting can also lead to unfocused discussions and uncertainty as to whether the group has arrived at a decision.
Efficient meetings start with preparation. In his research, Tropman has found that those who manage meetings well send participants appropriate materials ahead of time and create a clear agenda that identifies each topic to be discussed as well as goals.
“The agenda is best if it looks like a restaurant menu,” Tropman says. “By that I mean each topic, like each dish, is separately listed, and below it is a one-sentence explanation of what it is. And to the right is a running clock.”
The agenda is important because it helps avoid what Tropman refers to as “newsletter” meetings, where participants share information and offer opinions, which can lead to meeting drift.
Tropman has found that the most successful meetings start with relatively easy items, address the most difficult items in the middle, and end with brainstorming for future meetings. Consider the bell-shaped curve in the illustration below, where time is charted on the x-axis and energy on the y-axis.
Structuring the meeting in this manner gives the group early successes on the easy items. This helps prepare the group to take on the bigger challenges in the middle. The brainstorming at the end “invites everybody to work together on nonfateful issues to rebond the group,” Tropman says.
“The idea of creating a structure is to facilitate the ability of people with different views to successfully work together. As they experience accomplishments, they will be more inclined to work together. Use success as a motivator,” he says.
The difficult issues that get discussed in the middle of the meeting should always have been discussed in the previous meeting’s brainstorming period—a time to “discuss controversial items in a decision-free zone,” Tropman says.
This brainstorming period can give the leader a sense of how the group feels about the issue and where the conversation might lead when the issue is discussed more formally in the following meeting.
In addition to paying careful attention during the brainstorming period, it’s often helpful to learn more about the issue—talking to others individually and researching it. Lack of preparation can be costly.
“What I found was that we meet about twice as often or twice as long as necessary, and the reason for that is rework. Rework is where you have to meet again to discuss something or decide something you weren’t able to [decide] during the previous meeting. That’s actually more than twice as costly because you’re meeting again to do the thing you should have done before. Then there’s the opportunity cost of not doing some of the stuff you should be doing. The goal here is faster, cheaper, better. We want to meet less frequently for a shorter period of time. We want to have quality results, and we want to spend less time doing it,” Tropman says.
Efficient meetings are essential to making decisions, but an efficient meeting does not guarantee an effective decision. To arrive at an effective decision, Tropman recommends thinking about the decision as a collective noun. “While we speak of it as if it were a single thing, it’s really a lot of little things,” Tropman says. “Think of it like going out to dinner. The menu is made up of a main course, maybe some vegetables, and there’s time and location involved. The person managing the decision has to keep all those things in mind. What we’re looking for is agreement on a course of action that meets what we call decision criteria—norms that make decisions okay.”
These criteria are:
- Breadth of preference. What do most people want?
- Depth of preference. Who feels deeply about the issue, and how can we accommodate them?
- Involvement. Who’s going to carry out the results of the decision? (e.g., Who’s going to teach this course?) How does he or she feel about it?
- Expertise. What do the lawyers think? What do the scientists think? What do the most experienced people in the room think?
- Power. What does the boss think?
“As you listen to the conversation, you’re going to try to propose an action that meets [the decision criteria]. That’s an intellectual challenge of a high order,” Tropman says. The goal is to meet all five criteria, but that is not always possible. At a minimum, you need to meet the first three because they define your decision culture, he says.
To do this, the leader must listen carefully to everybody’s comments and be attuned to the progression of the discussion. Listen for the end of a round of discussion, the point at which the conversation winds down a bit. At that point, it’s time to begin the process of decision crystallization—“turning disparate views into a cohesive plan of action,” according to Tropman.
Decision crystallization is a three-step process:
- Summative reflection. Organize and present back to the group what has been said.
- Action hypothesis. Propose a course of action.
- Action legitimization. Explain why the proposed course of action is appropriate, referring back to the decision criteria. “You’ve got to give people a reason why what you’re suggesting ought to work for the group,” Tropman says.