My Final Post Ever on Meeting Facilitation

Three people in a meeting
The cover image from my 2008 “Meeting Facilitation Mini-Course”

Rarely has writing a blog post made me downright angry. The problem isn’t that new evidence has convinced me I was wrong about something—that has never bothered me. No, I am angry because new, high-quality evidence proves I have been right for 25 years. The bile comes because very few managers practice what I taught then, and the recent research proves true yet again, about meeting facilitation. I am frustrated that the vast majority of meeting leaders go right on repeating time-and-money-wasting, attendee-boring, teamwork-harming meetings when methods absolutely proven to fix all that have been well documented for 150 years. Given that I and many others have included comprehensive step-by-step instructions in various media for decades, I’m really tired of writing about this topic.

What prompts this rant is a 2018 study that got recent social media play. Four psychology professors at the Univ. of Nebraska-Omaha and Clemson Univ. summarized all 200 scientific studies published over a decade that tested meeting practices. Most came out after I created my first facilitation course in the 1990s based on research pre-dating those studies. Here’s the thing: The professors found absolutely nothing new. That’s not to say their work had no value. Presenters and consultants regularly give advice with only anecdotal evidence, so it is valuable to see whether objectively better practices have emerged. In this case, they haven’t.

The study says meeting research dates to 1986. But an American army officer noticed the same problems a bit earlier. In response, Henry Martyn Robert read some books that had already been written on facilitation and produced Robert’s Rules of Order to address those issues—in 1876! You don’t need to go nearly that formal, but my point (of order) is that bad meeting habits are really persistent despite good alternatives.

I will run through what the research team found for those of you new to running meetings, to aim you down the right path. The shame is that none of the people who should read this post will. Experienced managers who aren’t already doing these things, which is most of them, are practicing willful blindness. All of this advice has appeared regularly in business magazines the entire time they have been managers. To summarize, the journal article says:

“Many of us can imagine what characterizes a meeting as ‘bad,’ such as starting the meeting late, having no clear agenda, getting off topic, being too long, failing to establish clear next steps or action items, and multitasking among the attendees (e.g., e-mailing) during the meeting. In contrast, effective meetings should include key personnel who possess the functional expertise required for the task at hand, should provide relevant and important information, are conducted in a timely and punctual manner, and are productive.”

Unfortunately, the researchers say, up to half of meetings are considered bad by participants, and organizations lose around $213 billion on those meetings. This is particularly troubling given that managers spend up to 80% of their time in meetings, according to one study they cite.

Meeting satisfaction directly affects worker satisfaction independent of other concerns, but only bad meetings reduce well-being. This fits with my earlier writings on the topic, which showed people actually enjoy meetings that are well-run and productive. The 2018 review found that being able to discuss work problems reduces negativity the next day. Furthermore, teams that laugh together “seem to stimulate positive meeting behaviors, such as praising other people, encouraging people to participate, and proposing solutions to problems, that predict team performance concurrently and even 2 years later.”

The rest of the journal article covers how to accomplish that. Start with the reason for the meeting: “Meetings that exist simply to share routine, nonurgent information that does not involve problem-solving, decision-making, or discussion should be avoided.” I go a step further to teach that you should never hold “status” or “information-only” meetings. Use other media for that. The only cost-effective reason to spend money by putting a bunch of people in a room for an hour or more is to bring their collective knowledge and perspective to bear on decisions to be made.

Next think carefully about whom you invite. It should be everyone who could be directly impacted by that decision, but only them. The study says, “Ensuring that all of the people invited to the meeting have meaningful contributions to make based on their roles or expertise can also impact their subsequent attitudes toward workplace meetings and their overall job satisfaction.”

An agenda is not optional, this review’s pile of evidence suggests. “After establishing and circulating an agenda in the premeeting phase, the facilitator is also responsible for setting a clear purpose at the meeting onset and following the agenda during the meeting to ensure that it stays on track.”

Also, “Leaders who make meetings relevant to subordinates, allow people to speak freely and to participate in making decisions, and use time in meetings wisely can foster engagement among their subordinates,” the professors found. Creating and enforcing meeting rules are the means to that last point, in my experience. For example, the evidence says allowing “killer phrases” that suggest nothing will change can lead into a downward spiral of negativity.

“Having phones or laptops available during meetings may encourage multitasking, resulting in inattention and distraction, but the effect is not yet clear,” the article says. Okay, so it has not been proven (or disproven) scientifically. But my experience over 30 years of running meetings has been that electronics slow them down for everyone and reduce discussion quality. I ban them except for the note taker, who might be the facilitator, and people presenting or asked to look up answers. Participants drop their objections after they see the positive impacts.

Record decisions and communicate them. The researchers say, “it is critical that meeting organizers follow through on meeting objectives by sending meeting minutes to all relevant parties as a record of decisions made during the meeting, the action plan for next steps, and the designated roles and responsibilities assigned to achieve meeting outcomes.” I incorporate all of these into “action items” including the dates by which each task volunteer thinks they can get them done, so I can put them on the next agenda after that date for follow-up. (It’s not a deadline, just a check-in date.) Agile teams will instead capture these as user stories in the team’s work tracking tool.

Finally, don’t assume you are the WGMF (World’s Greatest Meeting Facilitator). “Because researchers have found that more time spent in meetings is associated with greater fatigue, stress, and perceived workload, it is important that feedback regarding meeting satisfaction is acquired on a regular basis, especially to identify what makes a meeting bad or unsatisfying,” the article says. In Scrum, address meeting quality during the Retrospectives. Other teams should invite feedback occasionally during team decision-making meetings, and even better, through an anonymous survey tool.

None of this—absolutely none of it—was news to me. All of it reinforces what I taught teams starting in 1995. You can get that training absolutely free now: I step through all of the evidence-based meeting practices in my teambuilding book, The SuddenTeams™ Program, which I now give away as part of this Web site.

To be a blunt, sports-style coach: If you don’t follow all of the principles above for all of your meetings, change the way you run them today. You, yes you, are wasting at least some of your time and that of everyone in the room. You are also reducing everyone’s job satisfaction.

That’s it. I’ve done everything I can to get managers to change their behaviors, from gentle suggestions to pushy coaching to yelling (see the prior paragraph). I swear to you, except for passing references, I am not writing about this topic ever again. If you want more information from me, you’ll have to request a meeting.

Include an agenda.

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Source: Mroz, Joseph E., Joseph A. Allen, Dana C. Verhoeven, and Marissa L. Shuffler, ‘Do We Really Need Another Meeting? The Science of Workplace Meetings’, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27.6 (2018), 484–91 https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721418776307.

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