Monday, July 13, 2015

Taking meetings -- other stuff

*** Other Literature ***

Now I have a stack of other stuff that may have some value. I'm going to start in no particular order and skim aggressively.

Seibold (1979). Making meetings more successful: plans, formats, and procedures for group problem-solving. Journal of Business Communication

It gives us an estimate that between 7 and 15 percent of personnel budgets are dedicated to meetings. Most important, the article gives us a list of tactics for group decision making:

  1. Problem census
  2. Rational reflection
    1. What is the problem?
    2. What are the causes?
    3. What the criteria for an adequate solution?
    4. What are the possible solution?
    5. What is the best solution?
    6. How shall the solution be implemented?
  3. Brainstorming
  4. Buzz groups
  5. Nominal group technique. Members work alone to create lists and then reconvene to share. Further individual work may be used to sort them, etc.
  6. Delphi
  7. Listening teams. Groups may be assigned to listen for particular things during a panel discussion or presentation (e.g., causes, etc.).
  8. Role playing
  9. Two-column method
  10. RISK. Participants are asked for input on particular challenges and risks of agreed-upon solution.
  11. PERT

Eilon (1968). Taxonomy of communications. Administrative Science Quarterly.

The author produces an interesting taxonomy of interactions that can be used to monitor interactions, resulting in cool charts that look like:

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to create a takeaway from this paper. We don't for example, get common patterns of communication, etc. It's a cool tool… but I don't how to apply it. Maybe somebody has figured it out in the last 50 years!

McCowan et al. (2002). Modeling human interaction in meetings. IDIAP Research Report.

I think that I have seen this thing before. Oh yeah. It didn't help me then either. Next!

Miranda & Bostrom (1999). Meeting facilitation: process versus content interventions. Journal of Management Information Systems.

Apparently process interventions are effective; content interventions are not… at least in terms of group support systems. The implications are, however, a bit mysterious.

Jorgensen (2010). Meetings that matter: conversational leadership in today's organizations. Reflections.

More numbers (without a source): professionals spend 25% of their time in meetings; department managers spend 40%; executives spend 80%. The article basically advocates for a systems thinking approach where people use a meeting with Fifth Discipline ideals. The basic approach is "conversational leadership," borrowing foundations from Malcolm Knowles's adult learning models, Deming's TQM ideas, Edward Schein's ideas of process consulting, Robert Greenleaf's servant-leadership model, and Senge's stuff.

In this model, the goal of a meeting is learning and outcomes include personal or team structure change; changes in thinking, acting, interacting; etc. Use FOCUS:
  • F -- follow the Five Guidelines for Learning Conversations
  • O -- open with Check-in and Context, Purpose, and Outcome (CPO)
  • C -- clarify each agenda item with CPO
  • U -- use Closing-the-Learning-Loop protocols
  • S -- support safe space

Check-in could include: "what is most pressing for you?" or "What did it take for you to come to this meeting?" Use the check-in to ground people and to show respect for what is going on with the participants. Ground people in what they are about to do.

The Five Guidelines for Learning Conversations include:
  1. Listen for Understanding. Listen openly and with respect. Listen to yourself.
  2. Speak from the Heart. Speak to contribute to the conversation, not to fill space or have your position heard.
  3. Suspend Judgement. Suspend any certainty that you are right.
  4. Hold Space for Differences. "Don't counter with 'but'"; contribute with 'and'."
  5. Slow down the Inquiry. Take time to digest.

  • Context -- how does today's meeting fit into larger ongoing efforts and vision
  • Purpose -- why are people meeting?
  • Outcome -- what can participants expect?

George's thoughts: Context should generally link back to an ongoing project, corporate objective, or business process; Purpose should be of the form: "[We need to] Develop a timeline for the xyz project"; Outcome should be of the form: "[At the end of the meeting, we'll have] Created a rough draft of the WBS."

Each item of conversation should really be brought through the discussion points of conversation, clarity, and confirmation.

Now, on to something a bit more academic:

Leach et al. (2009). Perceived meeting effectiveness: the role of design characteristics. Journal of Business Psychology.

This paper basically reports on two studies that involved asking people about what works -- and what doesn't -- within meetings. It involved a solid methodology and a decent n count. Best practices included the use of an agenda, minutes, punctuality, appropriate facilities, and the use of a chair or leader are important.

It seems that the use of (and completion of) an agenda, punctuality, and decent facilities are particularly important factors. Factors such as the meeting type, length, and the number of participants are non-factors for perceived effectiveness.

This article was actually quite interesting and has led to a variety of other citations for similar work.

McGlory (2000). Time well spent? Strategic finance.

Hmmm… not much new in this one.

Caruth and Caruth (2010). Three prongs to manage meetings. Industrial management.

Prepare. Control. Evaluate.

Barske (2009). Same token, different actions. Journal of Business Communication.

So this is all about the use of the phrase OK in German business meetings. Next.

Rogelberg et al. (2012). Wasted time and money in meetings: increasing return on investment. Small Group Research.

The title is good and apparently this comes from a special issue. The authors cite some numbers -- organizations devote between 7% and 15% of personnel budgets to meetings; in 1995 Xerox (with 25,000 employees) spent $100.4M on meetings. Other studies have demonstrated that 1/3 of time in meetings in considered unproductive and that 2/3 fail to meet their stated goals. The problem is a big one:

"Based on the authors' informal surveying of dozens of HR leaders in Fortune 500 rims, shockingly, organizations do little or nothing to assess the return on its investment or to take substantive steps to assure that investment is a good one."

The authors propose a three step process:
  1. Assess the organization's investment in meetings.
    1. Determine hours spent in meetings and combine the number with the encumbered salary costs.
  2. Assess return on meeting investment.
    1. Employees complete a survey on effectiveness and value of meetings.
    2. Observers can watch meetings for assessment.
    3. Determine a percentage for unnecessary and ineffective.
  3. Implement a change strategy. Important topics of consideration include:
    1. Productive and counterproductive leader and participant behaviors
    2. Meeting preparation and follow-through
    3. Meeting scheduling
    4. Appropriateness around number of meetings
    5. Existing and quality of training regarding meeting facilitation
    6. Satisfaction with quality and quantity of shared information
    7. Feedback regarding performance in meetings
    8. Decision-making approaches used in meetings
    9. Participant evaluation of others
    10. Leader evaluation of participants
    11. Participant evaluation of leaders

Evaluation could be built into performance reviews as specific skills or as  alignment with core values.

Best practice guidelines:
  • Amazon's "two pizzas" -- a meeting should not exceed the number of people that could be fed by two pizzas
  • Intel's posters -- each room is decorated with:
    • Do you know the purpose of the meeting?
    • Do you have an agenda?
    • Do you know your role?
Every Intel employee takes a course on effective meetings.

Allen et al. (2012). Employees' feelings about more meetings: an overt analysis and recommendations for improving meetings.

I wonder if this was actually published? It's another study that basically asks people how they feel about meetings. Not surprisingly, when those meetings have a clear objective and share relevant information, people enjoy them. Employees are unhappy with meetings if they constrain resources such as time. The study relies on Hobfoll's notion of Conservation of Resource (COR), that is "a stress model which suggests that people strive to retain, protect, and build resources and that a potential or actual loss of those values resources is a threat to their well-being."
Marshall et al. (2015). A new model for high value meetings.

Published? EUROMA? I'm not sure. But the authors do provide some UML diagrams… and they talk about the "E^2 model":

 The authors are chasing a concept they call ROIOT (Return on Investment of Time). And then we don’t really get much else.

Allen, Lehmann-Willenbrock, and Landowski (2014). Pre-meeting talk: the impact of pre-meeting communication on meeting effectiveness. Journal of Managerial Psychology.

People talk before meetings. It could be small talk, meeting preparatory talk, work talk, or shop talk. The authors did a study to explore the impact of these factors on overall meeting success. It seems that only small talk is associated with overall meeting success. This finding might be due to shared values, group cohesiveness, etc. Apparently small talk had better correlations than open communication, task-oriented focus, systematic approach, or the timeliness of the meeting. The finding is particularly relevant for individuals who aren't extroverted.

Standaert et al. (2015). An empirical study of the effectiveness of telepresence as a business meeting mode. Information technology management.

Apparently, telepresence is a bit better than audio- and video-conferencing but is no better than face-to-face. The article does, however, gives us a good list of "communication objectives":

In short, telepresence is better than audio- and video-conferencing for: building trust and relationships; communicating positive or negative feelings; giving or receiving feedback; clarifying concepts, issues, or ideas. Interestingly, audio-conferencing is best for "routine exchange of information." Perhaps this finding is an example of Conservation of Resources.

Allen et al. (2014). Understanding workplace meetings: a qualitative taxonomy of meeting purposes. Management Research Review.

Apparently the authors have developed a taxonomy for meeting purposes. This should be interesting.

These numbers could be averaged out based on the overall size of the economy to get some sense of overall economic contribution. I'm sure the Bureau of Economic Analysis would give us some numbers. Regardless, "routinely discuss the state of the business," "discuss quality, policy, and compliance," and "discuss on ongoing project" seem to be the most relevant.

Cohen et al. (2011). Meeting design characteristics and attendee perceptions of staff/team meeting quality.

Some more numbers on what makes a good meeting:
  • Punctuality
  • Appropriate space, refreshments, decent temperature and lighting
  • Formal agenda available ahead of meetings. A formal agenda not made available is not different from not having an agenda!
  • Smaller meetings are of higher quality
  • Use of a facilitator wasn't correlated with quality unless the meeting was large

Almost done. Here's the last one:

Stray et al. (2013). Obstacles to efficient daily meetings in agile development projects: a case study. ACM/IEEE International symposium on empirical software engineering and measurement.

Common challenges of agile meetings include:
  1. Meetings are too long (22 minutes vs. 15 minutes)
  2. Reporting to Scrum Master vs. equal sharing
  3. Meetings involved pre and post overhead
  4. Negative attitudes to meetings

The article also poses some potential solutions to these challenges that are primarily relevant for agile processes.

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 case… 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. 

Taking meetings -- books

Now, on to the big topic: meetings. Why do we actually attend meetings? How do we make them less painful?

And here's a great quote on meetings: "I’ve yet to see a résumé—and I hope I never do— that lists “attends meetings well” as a skill. Yet attending meetings ends up being a key component of many jobs. And it’s stupid."  Mike Monteiro

"Why are you letting other people put things on your calendar? The idea of a calendar as a public fire hydrant for colleagues to mark is ludicrous. The time displayed on your calendar belongs to you, not to them."

In short: Meeting's suck. Let's get some more background. I've done a bit 'old dump of research. I'll review the book chapters first, then some HBR wisdom (oldest to newest), followed by other papers not otherwise sorted.

First up: "Meetings," from the Managers desk reference (no year or publisher apparently). It starts with the types of meetings: staff, department, sales, team, special committees, task forces, and projects. It also notes that initiatives like teamwork, employee involvement, quality, and participatory management necessarily force meetings to occur.

There are a series of pitfalls with business meetings:
  1. Participants are unaware of the purpose of the meeting, specifically why it was called and what the outcome should be.
  2. Participants are not given an agenda detailing issues, items, or reports to be given.
  3. Leaders let meetings go astray and off agenda.
  4. Meetings are tedious and long.
  5. Particular individuals take over and dominate.

There is a taxonomy for reasons why meetings occur:
  1. Obtaining information. Report givers must be good presenters and listeners should question and provide feedback. If there is no expectation or opportunity for feedback, there should be no meeting.
  2. Decision making or problem solving. Complex decisions may need consensus, deliberation, and a recommendation or solution.
  3. Motivation. The outcome of the meeting should be excitement and interaction.
  4. Innovation. Meetings can be effective for generating new ideas.
  5. Announcements. Meetings are good alternatives to memos. They afford visual demonstrations and provide an opportunity to address questions and concerns.

The chapter goes on to describe the characteristics of a good meeting:
  1. Participants feel like they belong.
  2. Broad participation.
  3. Clear path of discussion, shaped by a common purpose, agenda, and prepared participants.
  4. Managed conflicts.
  5. Both tasks and morale is considered.
  6. The group has input in the process of scheduling, operating, etc.

Leaders have a set of responsibilities with appropriate meetings:
  • Select the right attendees.
  • Circulate a realistic agenda (potentially a tentative agenda followed by a revised agenda). Set expectations for how participants should prepare.
  • Set the time and place. Typically, Monday mornings, Friday afternoons, and immediately post-lunch are bad as are rooms that are crowded, hot, or that have poor acoustics.
  • Run a good meeting:
    • Involve the attendees. The leader should talk less than 25% of the time.
    • Ask questions to stimulate discussion.
    • Avoid input killers by treating people as inferior, inexperienced, etc.
    • Stay on track
  • Summarize
  • Give assignments
  • Distribute minutes or notes

There are specialized types of meetings:
  • Problem Solving:
    • Describe the problem
    • Discuss history, causes, and effects
    • Suggest many possible solutions
    • Identify the best solution
    • Make recommendations
  • Brainstorming
    • Present ideas as quickly as possible
    • Don't explain ideas
    • Don't evaluate or analyze the ideas of others
    • Build on the ideas of others
    • Record

It also gives some guidance on video conferencing that seems a bit dated.

Chapter 23 of the Concise handbook of management: "Making meetings matter."

I like the first paragraph where it notes that meetings aren't simply about exchanging information, "the purpose of business meetings is to be task-oriented."

Consider the following before calling a meeting:
  1. Is it necessary?
  2. Is there a purpose? Goals? Desired outcome?
  3. Who should lead? Attend? Who shouldn't be there?
  4. Is there enough material for a complete agenda?
  5. Has there been sufficient preparation? Participants should know what is expected.
  6. Are there sufficient tools in place?
  7. Will the meeting start and end on time?
  8. Does everyone know expected rules or procedures?
  9. How will the meeting be summarized?
  10. What kind of follow up is required?

The first chapter of Planning successful meetings and events might have some interesting information. It starts off with some perspective on the role of the meeting coordinator and the necessary skills. It breaks down some common meeting types, including:
  • Board meetings
  • Sales conference
  • Management meeting
  • Corporate retreat
  • Awards ceremony
  • Holiday party
  • Annual meeting
  • Product launch
  • Seminar
  • Workshop
  • Conference
  • Convention
  • Incentive meetings
  • General assembly/plenary
  • Concurrent sessions
  • Training sessions
  • Team-building events
  • Fund-raisers
  • Special events

It also provides a list of common meeting purposes:

Much of the chapter is devoted to large and/or formal meetings. It provides a valuable sample of a planning timeline:

Overall, this definition of "meeting" is far bigger than the one that I'm pursuing.

I have a chapter called "How do you manage meetings" from a 2006 book called Manage meetings positively… and it's not what I need. Perhaps I was just looking at a sidebar. Let's see what's in the actual chapter…

Lots of repetition from what I have seen:
  1. Decide if you need meeting. Ensure that email or conference calls wouldn't be better.
  2. Plan: who to invite, relevant information (including directions to the venue), contact details; catering; delegate minute taking
  3. Prep the venue: tidy, sufficient seating; flip chart, pens, etc.; power points; etc.
  4. Stay on track: begin on time; welcomes; turn off mobiles; etc.
  5. Establish follow-up accountability: agreed actions; who is responsible; deadlines; issues for and date of next meeting

I have another chapter called: "Chapter 5: Making decisions in meetings." It could be from the same book… or not.

  • Step 1: Decide what you want the decision to achieve. Decision levels include:
    • Strategic
    • Tactical
    • Operational
  • Step 2: Find the information you need. The article recommends using the "thinking hats" method of Edward de Bono:
    • White hats -- focus on data, look for gaps, trends, etc.
    • Red hats -- use intuition and emotion
    • Black hats -- look at negatives and why something won't work
    • Yellow hats -- take an optimistic view
    • Green hats -- brainstorm in a creative, freewheeling way
    • Blue hats -- control and orchestrate the meeting
  • Step 3: Outline alternatives and consequences. Use force field analysis, pro/cons, SWOTs, etc.
  • Step 4: Judge alternative by your goals. Consider decision trees.
  • Step 5: Decide and then implement
  • Step 6: Review the consequences

Now I have chapter 9 of World's Business Cultures: "Meetings and negotiations." Not surprisingly, different cultures have different standards with meetings. Japanese, for example, have many attendees; Germans always use an agenda; etc. I'm sure there are exceptions to all of these rules but some attention to differences could point to some best practices:
  • Always speak to the senior decision-maker. They will be served tea first.
  • Distinguish between meeting types. German firms, for example, often explicitly distinguish between information meetings, actions meetings, and brainstorming sessions.
  • Agreement could be appointment. The Japanese principle of nemawashi means that everyone must agree.

The last book chapter I have is from Action tools for effective managers, Chapter 30, "Keeping meetings on track." Sometimes people will simply shoot down and block the official agenda leading to a stalemate. Unfortunately, it doesn't provide a lot of details beyond emphasizing the agenda, levelling with those who might undermine the agenda, and dealing with the hidden agenda up front and immediately.

Taking meeting notes

Minutes are a very specialized type of meeting artefact. They serve as a record and are associated with a variety of social conventions. In essence, these conventions create truth and limit conflicting narratives. Directors, for example, can't typically keep their own notes.

Not every meeting, however, is as structured as a formal board meeting. We meet for a variety of reasons including information exchange. In many of these meetings, we take notes.


And, more importantly: How?

Are there best practices for note taking in a meeting, particularly when these notes shouldn't be considered minutes?

First, let's review what we know about how people use information. In general, we hoard. We keep far more information than we can possibly use and we are very weak at actually maintaining it. We can be filers or pilers but we are generally poor at reusing information. Recognize that most of the information we collect in our notes is unlikely to get used.

Let's see what a random walk through the literature on note taking has to say…

First, a 2002 IDIAP white paper by McCowan et al. called "Modeling human interaction in meetings." The study involved observation of meetings to identify typical behaviors including:
  • Monologue
  • Monologue with note-taking
  • Presentation
  • Presentation with note-taking
  • White board
  • White board with note-taking
  • Consensus
  • Disagreement
  • Note-taking
  • Discussion
The paper subsequently explores the use of these behaviours to automatically identify and record information. The behaviour taxonomy is interesting but not quite what I'm looking for.

Geoffrey Nunberg provides some great justification for my interest in a piece from 2013 ("Noted" in The chronicle of higher education)"

"Considering how much attention we lavish on the technologies of writing—scroll, codex, print, screen—it's striking how little we pay to the technologies for digesting and regurgitating it. One way or another, there's no sector of the modern world that isn't saturated with note-taking—the bureaucracy, the liberal professions, the sciences, the modern firm, and especially the academy, whose residents, transient and permanent, have more right than anyone else to claim that taking notes is what we do."

He also gives us some other awesome quotes like: "The Post-it ranks as one of modern chemistry's two major contributions to the work of annotation, as partial reparation the highlighter pen, the colorist's revenge on the printed page."

And, in reference to Leibniz's inability to organize his "chaos of jotting that I do not have the leisure to arrange and mark" -- "It's my guess that he acquired Placcius's cabinet out of the same yearning for order that drives me to acquire new organizing systems, as I contemplate the scattered piles of notes and papers that make my workspace look like downtown Pompeii. Though for me, in the digital age, order seems even more tantalizingly just out of reach."

He also takes on PowerPoint: "PowerPoint goes further still. Posting one's lecture slides accomplishes the note transfer automatically, without requiring conversion to a different filing system, once the notes have been ceremonially verticalized and consecrated in the class session. Yet however detailed the slides are, students seem to feel compelled to take notes on them, as if they need something to do with their hands."

Number has struggled to come up with a way of organizing information to actually organize his book efforts. He explains that "writing is 10 percent inspiration, 10 percent perspiration, and 80 percent transitions." Despite his failings, he notes:

"Still, I keep trying, assembling project notes in one medium after another—Evernote, Word's notebook view, SOHO, stickies, Google docs, and those carnets with the little squares that I stock up on when I'm in France—to the point where my personal knowledge base, like Leibniz's, is scattered across a farrago of incommensurable schemes—the way my books would look if I just kept adding new shelves without ever reorganizing the old ones. It's a little disheartening, but not a cause for dejection as it must have been for Leibniz. If I need to find something, I can always run a search over the whole accumulation. We need never lose track of any thought in the age of search, only of its place in the order of things."

The Atlantic also gave the topic some love back in 2012 with an article called "Duly noted: the past, present, and future of note-taking" by Sebastian Stockman. It reports on the same conference described by Nunberg and provided a nice quote by Ann Blair. Note survive due to "long periods of benign neglect, combined with crucial moments of careful stewardship." Another good quote by Peter Burke: "When you take down almost everything, it becomes a disease."

Haghverdi et al. (2010). Note taking strategies and academic achievement. Journal of language and linguistic studies, 6(1).

Apparently the study of note taking was initiated by C.C. Crawford in the 1920 and continues to generate debates. The benefits of note taking include encoding and artefact. In general, note taking:
  • Improves attention span
  • Improves focus on a subject
  • Improves memory and recall
  • Provides a mechanism for concept organization

Apparently people "may forget" 50% of a lecture within 24 hours, 80% in two weeks, and 95% with a month if they don't take notes.

There is an extensive literature on why note-taking is potentially beneficial. There seems to be trends towards improved effectiveness for outline formats, including personal interpretations and explanations, concept mapping, and -- surprisingly -- being a naïve or uneducated note taker! Not surprisingly, few students are actually taught anything about note taking but there are a few methods:
  • The Cornell Method
  • The Unified Note-Taking System
  • The Split Page Method
Ultimately, note-taking should be adapted to individual needs and uses.

Quality is an interesting concept in note taking. The number of "idea units" in notes correlates positively with test performance.

Okay, perhaps it's time to step back a little bit and focus on the corporate sense of note-taking. A 2010 article by Mike Hawkins appeared in Training magazine. It's called "Help them retain what you train." It gives us eight principles:

  1. Invest time, money, and effort into knowledge acquisition.
  2. Take notes… but it doesn't tell us how.
  3. Synthesize notes into a framework. Again, weak on the "how" other that the list of "model, diagram, flowchart, cluster, picture, rhyme, acrostic, acronym, analogy, metaphor."
  4. Reflect
  5. Discuss with others
  6. Apply
  7. Practice
  8. Teach

That kind of sucked.

I have another article called "What's in your field book?" by Wesley Crawford, a Purdue University professor. I've lost the rest of the reference (UPDATE: Point of Beginning 97(22) from May 1997)! The article is really about notes taken in the field on an engineering project. It notes:
  • Record data exactly -- "the field book must be honest to be admissible in a court of law"
  • Keep it safe
  • Leave no room for interpretation /w legibility, etc.
  • Make references, particularly when you have brought outside data or information
  • Use 4H or permanent ink. Soft pencils will smudge and ink may blot
  • Set up the book in the first few pages:
    • Identify the owner
    • Provide a ToC
    • Number the pages (recto, top right)
    • A page for a legend of symbols
  • Set up a page:
    • Use standard note forms
    • Provide a north arrow
    • Sketch. Lots.
    • Provide date, time, and weather
    • Identify people doing the work on the left corner of the right hand page
    • Record everything
  • Don't crowd; use lots of paper
  • Do not erase
  • Use all caps; align decimals; use sig digs for angles (e.g., 042 degree 07' 31"i)
  • Use drafting techniques; carry a straight edge/protractor; aim for proportionality
  • Check your math

Most of the literature -- and there's a lot of it -- is really about learning skills.  Let's take a look at a 1995 article by Cohn et al. called "Notetaking, working memory, and learning in principles of economics" (Research in Economic Education). The authors conducted a fairly detailed study with over 200 undergraduates to explore the effectiveness of different notetaking styles and strategies. Their conclusions are a bit underwhelming: "Our results suggest that, in addition to student academic achievement, ability, and other socio-demographic characteristics, memory and notetaking may have an effect on learning." Wow, how's that for damning with faint praise!

Apparently, the technique that the authors encourage involves the lecturer presenting ideas for about 10 minutes during which time nobody takes notes. The students are then given 5 minutes to take notes. The instructor then summarizes and gives guidance on what they feel is important.

Switching back to the professional world, we have Middendorf and Macan's 2002 article from Journal of Applied Psychology called "Note-taking in the employment interview: effects on recall and judgements." The authors used a fairly rigorous methodology to come up with a similarly lukewarm response "taking notes is better than not taking notes for one's cued recall of information." Ideally, those notes are reviewed prior to decision making. Interesting, a key-points approach (i.e., filling in bullets in a pre-organized arrangement of headings) may reduce procedural and judgemental notes.

Moving back to educational settings, we have a 2008 article by Makany et al. in British Journal of Education Technology. It's called "Optimising the use of note-taking as an external cognitive aid for increasing learning." The main conclusion is that "non-linear note-takers were significantly better than the linear group both in terms of quantity and quality of the learned material." So, what is non-linear note-taking? Apparently the rate of speech is 2-3 words per second by handwriting is only 0.2-0.3 words per second so alternative strategies are important. The list of non-linear techniques includes:
  • Clustering
  • Concept mapping
  • Cornell system
  • Idea mapping
  • Instant replays
  • Ishikawa diagrams
  • Knowledge maps
  • Learning maps
  • Mind maps
  • Model maps
  • Pyramid principle
  • Semantic networks
  • SmartWisdom

The study compared the SmartWisdom approach to traditional note taking and found that the non-linear notetakers "performed on average 20% better than the linear control group in tasks measuring comprehension and metacognitive skills."

Haynes et al. gives us "An analysis of notes taken during and after a lecture presentation" (North American Journal of Psychology -- 2015). This study is interesting because it considers PowerPoint as an instructional medium. Specifically, the study reviewed actual notes and used quiz scores. The literature review reveals the typical trends -- working memory, external storage, etc. The study basically looked for differences due to the way in which students took notes, either during the lecture or after the lecture. There essentially were none. The big issue, however, is whether or not the students recorded relevant information. That's a big issue: what is relevant? This issue is more apparent in meeting minutes where the notes have to include motions, carried resolutions, actions, etc. The situation is much more complicated when we're dealing with note-taking for information exchange.

There's a brief article in Library Media Connection by Diaz from 2014. In "A notable process: teaching critical reading via note-taking (making)," she notes that students struggle to take notes while reading digital texts. She suggests using an annotation approach to facilitate critical reading of a text:

This issue of annotation in an interesting one. I've discussed marginalia and annotation in the past and it was a factor in my exploration of Thomas Arundell's copy of Ramelli. Blustein, Rowe, and Graff presented a paper in 2011 at the International conference on theory and practice of digital libraries. The title of the paper is "Making sense in the margins: a field study of annotation." The focus of the paper is really the review of digital texts rather than meeting note-taking but it could be interesting. Annotations can include:
  • Telegraphic annotations -- non-text, underlining, highlighting, etc.
  • Explicit annotations -- textual notes

Other coding categories include audience, location, types, etc. Type categories include anchors that draw attention to particular parts of the text and content types that improve understanding of the the text. The function of marks varies by urgency and complexity:
  • Interpretive marks
  • Problem-working (typically near charts or equations)
  • Tracing progress (associated with large blocks of highlighting indicating that the reader can't determine relative importance)
  • Procedural (intended to draw the reader back to important parts of the text)
  • Place-marking and aiding memory
  • Incidental (doodles; indicative of lack of engagement)
Not surprisingly, the results indicate that annotation is important but highly idiosyncratic.

This is all very interesting but we still haven't answered the question -- how should we take notes? It seems that there is some consensus that the Cornell system is a good approach. Basically, it mandates that you divide the page into two columns. The left column is called the "cue column" and the other one is the "notetaking column." The bottom of the page is dedicated to a "Summary" to be completed after class.

Note-taking involves a few steps:
  1. Record using "telegraphic sentences"…. Whatever that means.
  2. Create questions following class based on the content
  3. Recite. Review the key words in the cue column and say aloud, in your own words, the answers to the question
  4. Reflect. Ask: what's the significance
  5. Review. Spend the last 10 minutes of the week to review all your notes

The other approach that has emerged is the guided notes approach where one basically starts with a listing of key issues or bullets and fills in the details. I don't think that the approach is completely different from a general split page approach. For example, for a meeting, one could use a split page approach prepopulated with the agenda as cues. This approach could also be amenable to the taking of meeting minutes.