Bad meetings: Dealing with unnecessary topics
Here's a second extract from 'Kill Bad Meetings', the new book by Kevan Hall and Alan Hall.
This section introduces a simple meetings tick chart that you can use to analyze your face-to-face and virtual meetings to identify unnecessary meeting topics. Our research shows this can be 40% of current meeting content.
Create a simple spreadsheet or chart like the one below. List the topics or agenda items of your meeting in the left-hand column, and the names of the participants in the rows across the top.
Here is an example from a meeting we observed.
During your meeting, when any individual talks during the discussion of each of the topics, make a tick under their name (two ticks if they talk for a long time). This will give you a graphical record of who contributed to each of the topics and will help you identify which topics were relevant to which attendees.
Frequency of talking is, of course, not the only indicator of participation and relevance but it is easy to identify and enables you to initiate a conversation based around some facts and patterns after the meeting.
It is also an important indicator of the collective value of an individual attending the meeting. If they do not contribute they may learn from others, but the others won’t learn from them. If the information flow is all one way, as we will see below, then a meeting may not be the right way to involve them.
Interpreting the results
In our client work, when we sit in and observe live meetings, we have found that around 40% of meeting content is not relevant to all attendees.
By cutting out low-relevance topics from our meetings we can improve the effectiveness of what remains and set up more focused sub-team meetings or one-to-one conversations to deal with important issues that are best handled outside the meeting.
There are two main types of interactions in meetings:
Star group interactions – these tend to be either:
- One-to-one conversations, which are often of low relevance to everyone else or
- Broadcasts of information from one individual (often the boss or an expert) to the group
We call these types of communication 'star group' (hub and spoke) interactions. Because they are individual or broadcast conversations, they do not really require a collective meeting where everyone needs to attend synchronously (at the same time, if not the same place).
Typical examples of star group interactions include:
- Broadcasting information from one person (usually the boss) to many without any opportunity to interact or do anything with the information. Topic 1, the business updates in our meeting tick chart above, was one of these, where the boss gave an update and only one person asked a question. This information could have been circulated in advance as there was little need for discussion.
- Status updates, where people describe what they did last week but the information is only relevant to them and their boss. You can see this in our meeting tick chart example above in topic 2, 'status reports': everyone spoke just to give their update; the boss asked a few questions but no one else asked questions of each other. While this can be a good use of the boss’s time, the other participants spend a lot of time listening to information that is not relevant to them.
- Individual action reviews, where people update their boss or the meeting leader on individual activities or deliverables such as project updates that are not relevant to other participants. We could achieve the same objective with a series of one-to-one calls, saving significant time for the other participants.
- Detailed discussions that are relevant to the meeting leader or presenter and one other person but not relevant or interesting to others. Topic 5, 'budgets' on our tick chart example above, was one of these.
- Side discussions or digressions between individuals that are not relevant to the topic being covered.
On your meetings tick chart make a note where any topics mainly or wholly consist of one-to-one interaction or broadcast content. As you make a tick after every person talks you will quickly spot these star group topics – you will see that only one person talks or only a couple of people contribute in each conversation. If this is your own meeting, be particularly aware of the interactions of others. If you are the central “hub” person in a star group, you may feel that all the topics are relevant – because they are to you personally. You should also ask yourself whether the topics are relevant to all other participants as well.
We call work that requires synchronous communication, discussion, co-creation, and active participation 'spaghetti' because people must work in a highly interconnected way to achieve a collaborative goal. Typical examples of spaghetti team interactions include:
- Discussions to make a decision
- Multidisciplinary problem-solving
- Co-creating new ideas and proposals live in the meeting
- Solving common problems
- Learning common skills
On our meetings tick chart topics 4, 'next year’s plan', and 6, 'people and talent', look like spaghetti topics, where everyone was engaged and contributing. Some spaghetti interaction, however, is only relevant to a subset of the people at the meeting. It is quite common that meetings can have several topics that are only relevant to a few people who attend.
You can see this pattern on our meetings tick chart above for topic 3, 'marketing update', which was very relevant to three people who spoke a lot, but most people did not contribute at all. If some topics in your meeting are only relevant to a subset of meeting attendees, then these topics should be discussed at smaller sub-team meetings attended only by the people who need to be involved.
If the topics are relevant and create interaction from all participants, then these are the kind of topics we should base our future collective meetings around. If topics are not relevant to all, there are usually other, simpler ways to deliver the objective.
The remainder of the book 'Kill Bad Meetings' focuses on how to cut out unnecessary face-to-face and virtual meetings, overcome cultural resistance to change and radically improve the meetings that remain. Find out more about the book and associated training programs at www.killbadmeetings.com.
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