Monday, July 13, 2015

Taking meetings -- HBR

*** HBR ***

Let's move on the HBR stuff. It's always interesting. I will try to start from the oldest stuff and work forwards to see if we can detect any evolution in approach.

The first HRB article is from 1969 and was written by Prince: "How to be a better meeting chairman." It leads off with a great quote: "Robert's Rules of Order provide a canon of regulations and procedures that can be applied to any meeting, but in the context of the intimate, creative 'think' session that has  become an important part of the management process in the present-day business world, they may be more than a little anachronistic."

The research typically draws on groups of seven or fewer since seven is "the maximum number of people that can work together productively in a meeting." These types of meetings have four key challenges:
  1. Objectives are vague, even if there is an agenda.
  2. Meeting chairs might discourage creativity.
  3. Chair prejudices may limit conversation or problem-solving.
  4. Meetings have a high level of antagonism.

Approaches for fixing these issues include:
  • The rotating chair
  • Stating the problem -- that is get the statement written down
  • Temporary shelving i.e., the parking lot
  • Spectrum policy -- people have to provide a spectrum of responses including both positive and negative considerations
  • Restate (and operationalize) the problem. This is kind of like a five whys exercise.
  • Vacation time -- take a specific break from the problem to explore something completely different (e.g., Give me a striking image from the world of weather? A thunderhead. Why is it dangerous? Etc.)
  • Toward the solution -- return to the list from the vacation and use it to inform discussion on one of the problem statements
  • Rotate the chair during a meeting
  • Leadership principles:
    • Never compete with the members
    • Listen
    • Don't permit anyone to be put on the defensive
    • Use every group member
    • Keep the energy high
    • Keep the members informed of where they are in the process
    • Keep your eye on the expert
    • Don't manipulate the group

Roger A. Golde gives us an article from 1972: "Are your meetings like this one?"

The article notes that managers spend up to 50% of their time in meetings. It discusses a caseā€¦ but it doesn't give us much that is tactical.

Anthony Jay's 1976 article seems to be more on point: "How to run a meeting." Here's a great quote:

"Certainly a great many meetings waste a great deal of everyone's time and seem to be held for historical rather than practical reasons; many long-established committees are little more than memorials to dead problems."

So, what are the purposes of a meeting:
  1. They define a team, group, or unit.
  2. They enable a group to revise, update, and to what it collectively knows.
  3. They enable individuals to understand the aim and goals of the group
  4. They create a commitment in the participants
  5. They enable a manager to lead, not just be reported to
  6. They are "status arenas" to establish hierarchies

The author gives us a size grading for meetings:
  1. Assemblies with 100 or more people who just listen
  2. Councils with 40 or 50 people who mostly listen and occasionally contribute
  3. Committees  with up to 10 -- at most 12 -- who speak on equal footing under the guidance of the chair. Most meetings are of this type ("the bulk of the 11 billion meetings" that take place in the US every day)

There are also different types of meetings:
  1. Frequency -- daily, weekly, monthly, ad hoc, irregular, quarterly, etc.
  2. Composition -- do participants work together? Do they work in parallel? Or are they strangers?
  3. Motivation -- do participants have a common objective?
  4. Decision process -- how to participants come to consensus and make decisions?

In general, there are a few different general knds of meetings:
  • Daily meetings for people with common objectives that make decisions by general agreement.
  • Weekly or monthly meetings for people on parallel projects where there is some competition and where the chair will likely make decisions
  • Irregular, occasional, or "special project" meetings for people who have little relationship except for the project promoted by the meeting. Every member essentially has a veto.

Best practices:
  • Before the meeting
    • Define the objective. Every item on the agenda can fall into one of the following categories:
      • Informative-digestive. People need to be informed of something important.
      • Constructive-originative. Management wants input and ideas.
      • Executive responsibilities. Management wants people to take responsibility.
      • Legislative framework. Ratification of policies, procedures, etc.
    • Making preparations.
      • People. Who should attend? No more than 12. It might be necessary to have multiple meetings.
      • Papers. The agenda should have enough information that participants can prepare some views and opinions ahead of the meeting. Consider marking each item "for information" or "for discussion" or "for decision." Also consider supporting documents and the order of the agenda:
        • Early part of the meeting. Lively and creative. Good for items of broad interest and concern.
        • Start with items that unify members.
        • Don't dwell on the "trivial but urgent" items.
        • Meetings break down after two hours. Ninety minutes is best.
        • If meetings go long, schedule them before lunch or the end of the day to establish an end point.
        • Supporting documents should be brief.
    • Chair's job.
      • Focus on the achievements of the meeting.
      • Minimize contributions in constructive-originative meetings.
      • Chairs must develop skills for moving the meeting along: leaning forward, staring at the speaker, raising eyebrows, etc.
      • Two types of leadership: "team" or "social" leader; and "task" or "project" leader.
      • Structure the discussion:
        • What is the topic?
        • What is our objective?
        • What is the challenge?
        • For how long has this challenge existed?
        • Can we explore the causes for the challenge?
        • Can we provide a diagnosis?
        • Can we provide a treatment plan?
  • Conducting the meeting:
    • Deal with the subject (as above). The chair might have to establish a working group or terminate the discussion if it is unproductive.
    • Deal with the people. Punctuality is important so list late comers in the minutes. Consider seating arrangements. Control the garrulous and encourage the silent. Protect the weak. Encourage ideas and innovation. Don't quash suggestions. Close with an achievement.
  • Following the meeting:
    • Send minutes with time, date, location, chair; names of all present; all agenda items and decisions reached; assignment responsibilities; time meeting ended; data and time of next meeting


The next selection is a little bit more modern. Paul Lovett wrote "Meetings that work: plans bosses can approve" in 1988. The point of this article is really to demonstrate that the meeting is more important that the plan. Specifically, managers need to use a meeting to get a plan approved. They have to answer the questions:
  1. What is the plan?
    1. Terse statement followed by a list of actions.
  2. Why is the plan recommended?
    1. Get support: rate of return, ROI, etc.
  3. What are the goals?
    1. Focus on the unit of measure, not numerical values
    2. Use a chart to compare as-is and to-be
    3. Consider a list of milestones
  4. How much will it cost to implement?
    1. Address capital costs, operational costs , and HR costs

We then jump forward in time to 2003 with "The board's missing link" by Montgomery and Kaufman. This article is basically about the interaction between shareholders, boards, and executives. Interesting, but irrelevant for what I need.

Michael Mankins gave us "Stop wasting valuable time" in 2004. He reports on a study conducted by EIU and Marakon on executive perceptions. In short:
  • Executives spend 21 hours a month in leadership team meetings
  • Agenda setting is unfocused and undisciplined. In most cases, the agenda is recurring or it is ad hoc. Meetings are often crisis-driven. Less than 5% of respondents reported "rigorous and disciplined" process.
  • Little attention is paid to strategy
  • Most meetings aren't structured for decisions. They're built for "information sharing" or "group discussion."

Strategies for improvement:

  1. Deal with operations separate from strategy. Use different meetings.
  2. Focus on decisions, not discussions. Distribute information early using standard templates. The cover sheet should articulate why you're asking someone to read something: for information, for discussion and debate, or for decision making.
  3. Measure the real value of agenda items.
  4. Get issues off the agenda as quickly as possible.
  5. Put real choices on the table. Present a variety of options for a problem (at least three).
  6. Adopt common decision-making processes and standards.
  7. Make decisions stick. Use performance contracts.




Birkinshaw and Cohen gives us a 2013 article called "Make time for the work that matters." They note that knowledge workers spend 41% of their time on "discretionary activities that offer little personal satisfaction and could be handled competently by others." They offer a solution: "Knowledge workers can make themselves more productive by thinking consciously about how they spend their time; deciding which tasks matter most to them and their organisations; and dropping or creatively outsourcing the rest."

There are ways of outsourcing work or making things more efficient. For example, an initiative may ban email on Fridays, limit the lengths of meetings, or ban internal PowerPoint.



Assess tasks using a basic survey. Rate each task on a scale of 1-4 on the following questions:
  • How valuable is this activity to the organization?
    • It contributes significantly to the overall objectives (4)
    • It contributes in a small way (3)
    • It has no impact, positive or negative (2)
    • It has a negative impact (1)
  • To what extent could I let this go?
    • Essential. This takes top priority (4)
    • Important. I need to get this done today (3)
    • Discretionary. I'll let it go if time allows (2)
    • Unimportant. I can cut this immediately (1)
  • How much personal value do I get from doing it?
    • Definitely keep. It's one of the best parts of my job (5)
    • Probably keep. I enjoy this activity (4)
    • Not sure. This task has good and bad points (3)
    • Probably drop. I find this activity somewhat tiresome (2)
    • Jettison. I dislike doing it (1)
  • To what extent could some else do it on my behalf?
    • Only I (or someone senior to me) can handle it (5)
    • This task is best done by me because of my skills and responsibilities (4)
    • If structured, this could be handled by someone junior to me (3)
    • This task could easily be handled by a junior employee or outsourced (2)
    • This task could be dropped (1)


A score of less than 10 indicates that the task could be delegated or eliminated. Low value tasks should be dropped, delegated, or redesigned. 

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