Five Common Meeting Mistakes

The five I’ve selected here are those that, as a facilitator, I most often have to manage. Avoid them and I can guarantee you a better outcome.

Mistake No: 1 More is better
James Lind, a Scottish surgeon in the Royal Navy, proved you could treat people suffering from Scurvy with citrus fruit. Despite this evidence, it was decades later before the Royal Navy decided to apply the learning, during which time many people lost their lives. In the same way, Thomas and Fink, in their excellent literature review written in 1963, cited research from much earlier that demonstrated the impact group size has on performance. But still to this day we have large groups convening in meeting rooms in businesses the world over despite the fact we know there is an optimum size to enable effective group interaction. It seems to be around 5 – 7 people. And if you want to develop cohesiveness, then stop at 12.

As the group size increases then air time becomes disproportionately used by a few with the rest contributing far less. You will have witnessed this for yourself in meetings where one person dominates the discussion. If you want to see this effect in action, observe a meeting. Take a piece of paper and pen and draw a line between the person speaking and the next person speaking. Keep doing that throughout the meeting. You will see at the end a concentration of lines around a few individuals and paucity around others.

It’s not that you can’t have effective meetings of more than 12 people, it’s just they will form sub groups within the overall group. It might do your ego good to have everyone present for a team meeting and end up with a room filled with 12 or more people, but you won’t have effective discussions.

If you want everyone to get involved, either keep the number of attendees down to 5 – 7 or split the group into groups of 5 – 7. If you just want to brief people – is a meeting really necessary? If it is, fill the room with as many people as you want.

Mistake No: 2 It’s a good meeting if we get through lots
I was sent the agenda a week in advance. It was an impressive list of items to get through. Helpfully the start and end times had been provided. Once I’d done the maths I realised that each item had a maximum time available of 5 minutes – so much for a discussion. In 5 minutes, on average 750 words will be spoken. That’s about one side of A4 of text. Allowing time for the topic to be introduced, it meant about 20 seconds per person each – or about 50 words. By imagining they had hours for the meeting somehow they believed it would be possible to cover everything within the time. Do the maths! Over-packed agendas is such a common phenomena.

The same holds true for presentations. Often people are worried they might get caught out and so prepare extra slides just in case. There is a paradox here. I call it Mies’s law of disproportionality (after the architect Ludwig Mies van der Roche who is most often associated with the aphorism ‘less is more’.) Mies’s law states: “The more senior the audience the fewer slides required by the audience but the greater the number of slides used by presenters”. When presenting to a board of a company, 5 or 6 well constructed slides are better received than a comprehensive deck of 60 slides. In contrast, a group of junior managers may benefit from a more comprehensive briefing to aid their understanding.

Deal with the fear that produces excess slides and restrict the presentation to just a few carefully chosen illustrative slides.

Also, when planning your team event, remember to deduct time for toilet and refreshment breaks and time for lunch. A finger buffet can be consumed within 30 – 45 minutes but a ‘sit-down’ meal can take anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours depending on where you are in the world. Taking these factors into account, a 9am to 5pm workshop is not the 8 hours it first seems. It is at best more likely to be 6 hours.

Put simply, do less, and do it well.

Mistake No: 3 Political solutions
Korsgaard, Schweiger and Sapienza in 1995 did some research from which they concluded that the process by which decisions are made affects the mindset people have towards that decision, themselves, fellow team members and the leader. The message is clear take into account what team members have to say and you will generate greater trust, team members will feel a great sense of attachment and will be more committed to the decision.

What this doesn’t mean is ‘pretend to involve your team’. This is worse than not involving them. If a team member suspects that you are going through the motions of involving them but you’ve already reached the decision then you can kiss goodbye to trust, say cheerio to respect and hello to indifference.

Avoid also the political move of inviting someone because it’s the right thing to be seen to be doing. Either have them they because you value their contribution or wish to build the relationship or don’t bother.

Mistake No: 4 The solution is another meeting
I have an imaginary alarm bell that rings in my head at the end of team events and team meetings. It’s triggered by commonly occurring outcomes. One of these is the conclusion that the team needs to meet more. On the face of it this makes sense. I can show you many examples of where teams have instigated these meetings and show you a few months later how the idea fizzled out due to non-attendance because people no longer saw the value. This is because meetings without a clear purpose and sense of the outcomes sought are a waste of time.

Meetings are a way of solving specific problems. Be clear about what these are and stick to this core purpose. It’s ok to have a regular standing meeting where the agenda remains consistent, e.g. a weekly check in to ensure everyone is aligned with the work coming. To paraphrase Alice in Wonderland, ‘unless you know where you are going, any road will take you there’, in the same way a meeting with an open agenda will end up discussing something and everything but mostly nothing.

By the way some of my other alarm bells include:

-‘Actions by the end of the month / quarter etc’.

Pin it down. Be precise. If you are clear about the deadline, you motivate people to deliver. The date is real and meaningful. It allows you to pick up the phone and check whether what was going to be done has been.

-Actions that are all for other people not in the room

This is simply abdicating responsibility. I can’t control what other people do – only what I do. All actions should be for the people in the room. That doesn’t mean they can’t ask others for help, it just means the action is on them to ask for the help in the first instance.

Mistake No: 5 Leaving the Elephant in the room
It was a beautiful meeting room. The fabulous paintings on the wall were matched by superb facilities. The meeting seemed to be progressing well, but I had a gut feel that all was not quite as it seemed. The thing about non-verbal language is that it is almost impossible to lie. The signs, though well disguised were that something was going on. During a break I had a private chat with a few of the delegates. It turned out the issue dominating everyone’s thoughts but not the meeting was the recent reorganisation and some deep frustrations with what had happened. It was a boil that needed to be lanced.

Fortunately, this issue had come to light with sufficient time to build a discussion into the agenda. After this, whilst some people remained unhappy, at least everyone knew and understood the issues and the level of frustration experienced by a few. We were able to set in place some steps to begin to resolve the issues.

So if you know there is an issue that is dominating everyone’s thoughts but don’t address it – that doesn’t mean it has gone away, it just means you’ve now shifted the discussion to outside the meeting. People will talk about it even if you don’t. It’s better to manage the discussion than allow the issue to escalate through a series of one-to-one discussions. In the same way, if you can predict the difficult questions you could get and don’t prepare your response then you are setting yourself up for a hard time.

In conclusion
Meetings are not meant to be a form of punishment. Business is about people. To deliver the outcomes we seek this means working with and through others and necessitates getting together to work out what the best thing is to do. A well run, effective meeting leaves people energised and motivated. Time stands still in poorly organised and managed meetings. What would you like your reputation to be about the way you manage meetings? Be an inspiration. Avoiding the mistakes listed above will help you get there.


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