The Science of Meetings

The Science of Meetings | MCI United States | EN

Be more productive in 2019.

Happy 2019! I am sure we have all made resolutions — let me try to guess yours. Less bread? Limiting alcohol? Move more? We are halfway through January, and I cheerfully admit that my commitment to eating totally clean lasted about a week (although I am still doing a fairly good job of it), and my commitment to no wine lasted . . . about a week as well.

I have also made a few work- and productivity-related resolutions. Last year, I looked at how I was spending my time, and I was struck by the number of meetings I attend. Often these are meetings ABOUT meetings — namely, working with our clients to prepare for board visioning, strategic planning, or conference programming, all of which are essential for nonprofit organizations to conduct business and connect with stakeholders. 

As I almost always do, I searched for studies and books on this topic. One that I particularly liked was The Surprising Science of Meetings: How You Can Lead Your Team to Peak Performance. Based on the data that Americans spend 55 million hours each year in meetings, this book aims to provide ideas to implement around ensuring engagement and leaving participants with the feeling their time was well-spent.

This book focuses on two- to fifteen-participant meetings, and sketches out ideas for different types of meetings — planning, task force, brainstorming, debriefing, etc. Not only are these categories great for the work we do at MCI USA, but they also closely align with the types of meetings held by boards and associations, which our talents support, participate in, and often lead.

It is estimated that the number of workplace meetings has quadrupled during the past forty years, and I checked – our population has only increased by 50% during that same time period. The Surprising Science of Meetings postulates this increased prevalence of meetings is tied to several factors: greater emphasis on consensus-driven decisions, changing attitudes about employee inclusion, and/or more value placed on increased democratization and reduced command and control. As a result of reading this book and falling down an Internet rabbit hole of meeting-related science, here are some of my key takeaways.  

Less frequent, longer duration. One of the tools the book provides is a way to assess the perception of wasted time by participants — with even a good meeting wasting up to 20 percent of the time spent, which makes sense if you think about the settling in around the table, sidebar conversations closing, rifling through notes and documents, etc. By scheduling meetings 50% less often but lasting twice as long, my hope is to consolidate some of that flurry of personal administration and expand the overall perceived value of any meetings that I lead.

Determine the real cost of meetings. MCI USA recently worked with a client that wanted to realign staff resources. Our suggestion? Reduce the number of board meetings. This organization is somewhat unique, with a monthly board meeting that is streamed live for all members to participate in, then a subsequent executive session. As a result, the staff (a full team attended both meetings, to serve as both a member and board resource) was preparing for two meetings each month. By reducing the meetings, the organization was able to reallocate more than 200 hours of staff time toward other higher priority activities. Determining the real and true cost of volunteer meeting management can be an interesting exercise. We aren’t advocating reducing all board meetings, but it is important to understand the opportunity cost and resource usage that staffing committees, board meetings, etc., has for any organization.

The more you talk, the better you think the meeting is. Making sure everyone has a voice and is heard creates a culture of expected participation and engagement. If the group leader tends to talk the most, empower the most junior person to lead at least a portion of the meeting. And if only one or two people dominate most of the conversation, it means the agenda isn’t relevant to all or we haven’t created a truly “safe” space for engagement. This section led me to commit to encouraging our MCI USA talents and client boards to undergo regular facilitation training to democratize meetings and encourage servant-leadership.  

Honor the reality that people feel the need to connect. If you meet for 50 minutes of every hour-long meeting, this gives people the ability to fully engage while knowing that they will have some time to check messages or make a quick call. Another point I am mulling is to reduce anticipated meeting time by five to ten percent, as placing a time pressure can often make a meeting more efficient.

Leverage the huddle; what can be accomplished in shorter ten-minute windows? Some thoughts for items suited to a shorter format include presentations of new products and committee requests for action or funding. Ten-minute formats encourage the presenters to be prepared, concise, and high energy. At MCI USA, we conduct our client leadership meeting with a slideshow that is on a timer — everyone needs to present only the most critical updates because it is understood that the clock is ticking. As a result, everyone is attentive (knowing their slide could pop up at any moment) and ready to scold if someone goes over the allocated time.

Shift the highest value of face-to-face interactionto the first itemin the agenda. Often, we structure meetings with a lot of reporting on the front end, with the rationale that this information will be necessary for everyone to fully engage in more interactive activities later in the agenda. If you can provide the needed data as a preparation item, you can then launch directly into strategic conversations, planning, and exercises. Any other reporting should be saved for last, with the justification that you want as many voices as possible to be heard during discussion and planning, whereas if you lose meeting attendees (or their attention), the information being presented (say, financial statements) can be referenced later.  

I believe that meetings are important — after all, we are a company that proclaims, “when people come together, magic happens.” Being able to see reactions in real time, hear the passion and intelligence behind an initiative, or debate alternatives with your peers are all high-value activities and are some of the things that keep me energized about the work that I do. I believe that meetings are a demonstration of commitment and encourage accountability to the other participants, while allowing voices at all levels and from many perspectives to be heard. I am excited to work with our team and our client partners in leveraging some of these insights during the year ahead — ensuring that this resolution, at least, will last a lot longer than my attempt to cut out my afternoon chocolate break.

Erin Fuller is the president of MCI USA’s Association Management & Solutions. She gets cranky when lunch meetings don’t include a cookie tray, even though she knows dessert at lunchtime is ridiculous.

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Erin Fuller

Erin Fuller
Erin Fuller

Erin Fuller leads MCI USA’s team who focus on nonprofit management and consulting, and assesses business development and partnership opportunities that advance MCI’s mission and model while supporting a culture of creating thoughtful growth and strong career pathways.

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