4 contrarian tips to run better meetings

Tired of unproductive one-hour meetings? Use these science-based, unusual tips to shake things up – including meeting length
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Some days, getting rid of meetings entirely seems like a great idea. And indeed, reducing meetings is sometimes in order. However, “a world without meetings is much more problematic, as communication, coordination, and consensus decision-making would suffer,” says Dr. Steven Rogelberg, chancellor’s professor and director of organizational science at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

A better answer is to improve the quality of meetings, using any number of methods from walking and standing meetings to building in breaks. For his book, The Surprising Science of Meetings: How You Can Lead Your Team To Peak Performance, Rogelberg combed through relevant research to unearth some of the more unique or counterintuitive methods for managing and running more effective meetings.

[ Are you known as a leader with high or low EQ? See our related story, 10 things leaders with emotional intelligence never do. ]

The Enterprisers’ Project talked to Rogelberg about what research tells us about unproductive meeting practices and four new approaches that IT leaders can consider to make meetings better – for themselves and their teams.

1. Beware of biased self-assessment

A number of studies have shown that when individuals rate their own performance in a given area, they give themselves higher marks than warranted. Rogelberg and his colleagues have found in their own studies that meeting leaders consistently rated their meetings more favorably than those in attendance did. “A leader’s experience of the meeting appears to be fundamentally different from the experiences of others,” Rogelberg says.

Rogelberg suggests IT leaders include meeting performance questions on employee engagement surveys or within 360-degree assessments, or survey their teams themselves. “Without such information, organizations – and more importantly, individual leaders – are left in the dark about whether their meetings are working,” says Rogelberg. “In turn, they remain blind to employee suggestions on how to improve meetings.”

IT leaders can also pursue formal meeting skills and facilitation training. “You can’t truly know what excellent meeting behaviors look like if you don’t have a standard of sorts to compare yourself to,” Rogelberg says.

2. Watch out for meeting bloat

One of the most common complaints that comes up during Rogelberg’s meeting audits: Our meetings are too big. This can happen for any number of reasons, from a desire to be inclusive to a lack of critical analysis of who should be invited. “Regardless of the motives, large meetings are undoubtedly suboptimal from a communication, process, and effectiveness perspective,” Rogelberg says.

One problem with large meetings is revealed in an experiment conducted by a French professor of agricultural engineering: Volunteers were instructed to pull on a rope as hard as they could, but they did so in groups of different sizes. Results showed that as group sizes increased, collective performance decreased. Individuals in dyads performed to 93 percent of their ability, those in triads pulled to 85 percent of ability, and individuals in groups of eight pulled to 49 percent of their ability.

“These findings have been replicated in a host of different contexts,” says Rogelberg. “Taken together, it is clear that we pull less when we know others are around to pull. We don’t give our all.”

When solving a problem or making a decision, keep it to eight people or fewer.

In the meeting context, the key is to invite just the right number of attendees by thinking deliberately about who needs to attend. There are also some best practices from meeting literature about ideal meeting sizes, Rogelberg says. One is the 8- 18-1800 rule: When solving a problem or making a decision, keep it to eight people or fewer; for brainstorming, 18 or fewer; and for information dissemination or rallying the troops, as many as 1800 or more.

“From my experience, seven or fewer is the ideal group size for decision-making and problem-solving,” says Rogelberg. “Eight to 12 attendees is doable if the leader has outstanding facilitation skills. For idea generation, agenda setting, and huddles, fewer than fifteen individuals is ideal.”

In the DevOps and startup world, many people like the two-pizza rule: Workgroups should be small enough that two pizzas will feed the group.

3. Embrace some silence

Less can be more when it comes to talking. Consider “brainwriting.”

One of the most counterintuitive meeting tips Rogelberg offers: Less can be more when it comes to talking. “As crazy as it might sound on the surface, there are a host of techniques that cultivate silence to create dynamic, engaging, and rich meetings,” Rogelberg says. He adds that silence can be particularly valuable in generating or evaluating new ideas.

More than 80 studies have been conducted comparing the brainstorming results of two types of meeting scenarios: one in which attendees generated ideas out loud and interactively, and one in which the participants generated ideas to the same problem by recording them on paper. The participants who interacted during the meeting tend to produce significantly fewer and lower-quality ideas than the non-talking attendees.

One technique IT leaders can try is “brainwriting.” “Essentially, it involves silently sharing written ideas in meetings around a particular topic,” Rogelberg explains. “Attendees participate in parallel, and unlike most meetings, where individual contributions are readily apparent, there is a level of anonymity involved.” One recent study found that brainwriting groups produced 20 percent more ideas and 42 percent more original ideas compared to traditional brainstorming approaches. CIOs can experiment with brainwriting in a number of forms, depending on their needs.

4. Shake up meeting lengths

The majority of workplace meetings are exactly one hour long, despite the fact that meetings vary greatly in purpose, scope, modality, and size. Science has now proven the old axiom that work expands to fill the time available. In one study, management researchers asked college students to complete a fixed set of simple math problems, giving some “excess time” and others just the right amount. “Lo and behold, those in the excess time condition took significantly longer to complete the problems. Similar sets of findings have been found in other populations, from pulp mill workers to NASA scientists,” says Rogelberg, noting that the same can happen in a meeting.

To guard against this, CIOs can make an informed guess as to necessary length based on meeting goals, invitee list, and analysis of past meetings, inviting others to weigh in as well. Once they have a good estimate, they might also consider shaving another 5 to 10 percent off that time.

The Yerkes–Dodson law, which maps the relationship between stress and performance, established that performance is optimal when some level of stress exists – not too much or too little. By reining in the meeting time slightly, IT leaders may introduce a “healthy amount of stress,” says Rogelberg. This promotes task-related focus, stimulation, energy, and engagement, he says.

“Don’t be wary of scheduling meetings with odd lengths or at unusual times,” he adds. “For example, a 48-minute meeting is just fine if that is the right fit.” The survey research company called TINYpulse, for example, starts a daily staff meeting at 8:48 a.m. – and company leaders say folks are rarely late to it.

Ten- and fifteen-minute meetings are often good options as well. “These types of meetings are common in high-stakes workplaces like military, emergency, and hospital settings,” Rogelberg says. “Short meetings are often used to debrief or actively reflect on an event or occurrence. Research shows that these types of meetings can enhance future individual and team performance. Plus, short meetings align with research on limited human attention spans and fatigue.”

[ Read our related article: Stand-up meetings: 5 reasons to kiss traditional meetings goodbye. ]

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.