How to Improve Decision Making and Conversation in Meetings

There’s plenty of information out there about meeting angst and agenda guidelines. It’s the main focus for meeting tech tools and content resources. 

What about what happens in the actual meeting? There’s usually a decision that needs to be made, and there’s always a group conversation. These two skills are important for meetings and nearly every aspect of life. 

Here’s how to improve these critical elements. 

Decision Making

The most meticulous agenda paired with a fully adopted system of meeting bylaws will not help with the crucial element of decision making. Meeting software tools produce loads of training and educational content with the goal of addressing this skill. 

Google executives famously rely on data to make decisions. Former VP Melissa Mayer discouraged the word “like” in meetings and instead encouraged people to use data-backed compliments or critiques. This can be a double-edged sword. Google over-engineered this idea to the point where they were testing 41 shades of blue to see which one performed better, which irked some designers. Despite this, being deliberate about your decision making process and criteria is a must. 

Leaning on data for decision making is a popular option because it’s the opposite of an emotional approach. Emotional decision-making is usually involved with our biggest regrets. But it’s also true that the emotional side of reasoning can’t be buried entirely.

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio documented cases where patients suffer brain damage that removes their ability to use emotion when making decisions. Their lives are ruined despite their IQ and other brain functions being completely normal because they’re not able to make decisions. This demonstrates the importance of considering people’s moods, emotions and maintaining a positive atmosphere within every meeting room. 

Further, relying entirely on logic (or data) leads to analysis paralysis if logic doesn’t indicate a clear winner. For example, if logo design options have divided support amongst the team and comparative A/B test results. 

Whether it’s data, an executive to serve as final tiebreaker, an algorithm, etc. it’s important to have something in place to make decisions when a stalemate is hurting productivity. Also, facilitating friendly conversation and boosting morale will have an actual impact on your decision making. 

Better Conversation, Better Meetings

You can have time to prepare, set the right agenda, use meeting bylaws and it can all still go wrong. What actually happens when you physically or digitally get together is often overlooked, at least by so-called thought leaders on the topic. 

While much of the advice about meetings is experience-driven, opinion-based and more art than science, guidance for facilitating conversation is more objective. It’s an easier topic to study and thus provides more conclusions. 

There are several techniques for managers (or any meeting leader). 

Create a welcoming environment - If employees don’t feel like they have permission to share, complain or ask hard questions, they’re likely not going to share important details about a project gone wrong. You can do this by asking permission before questioning, and asking questions like:

  1. What do you think I need to know?

  2. Where are you struggling?

  3. What are you proud of?

Be aware of questioning sequence - With that said, you should pay attention to how your questions are sequenced. In “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, Daniel Kahneman explained how questioning sequence can alter a respondents answers entirely. 

Students were asked how their life was going, followed by a question about their dating life. The answers were independent and not related. Flip the question sequence, and suddenly they felt worse about their life if they had a negative response on the dating question (which was asked first). 

This can apply to 1-on-1 meetings or status review meetings. If someone shares a negative sentiment on the initial question, the follow up question will likely be more of the same. Counteract this by focusing on the initial answer. Understand the why and how behind the reaction, before moving forward. 

Think like a negotiator - Hostage negotiators apply a simple, but effective 5-step process

  1. Active Listening

  2. Empathy

  3. Rapport

  4. Influence

  5. Behavioral Change

What happens in many meetings is people go directly to step four (influence), or skip one of the first three steps. It’s not enough to just listen, express empathy and demonstrate rapport to influence behavior or get people to listen and take whatever action is required after the meeting. 

There are also techniques for meeting participants. 

Mimic Appropriately - People are influenced by our movements and nonverbal reactions. MIT professor Sandy Pentland published an entire book dedicated to this topic. In one study, a presenter who purposely mimicked the movements of listeners was found to be 20 percent more effective. This isn’t something you would want to forcefully do, but understanding the movements and reactions of your teammates during a meeting will lead to more listening and togetherness. 

Active and Constructive Responses - Practice active and constructive responses whenever responding to someone. This means you are active with your body language i.e. maintaining eye contact. And constructive with language i.e. repeating part of their statement, then building on it.  

Compliment and encourage - If you want to be heard and listened to during a meeting, make other people feel good. Research shows that flattery is effective even when it’s obviously insincere. Being insincere isn’t the best habit to pick up, but find ways to compliment team members. 

Check out our other meeting-focused content to learn more about issues, solutions and how Topple fits in.

Meetings: How to Build Smart Agendas and Bylaws

Meetings without agendas are like hospitals without doctors. You might get something out of it, but there's a good chance you’ll end up hurting more than when you went in. 

Even those who recommend an agenda-less approach note the need for outcome statements and goals. If you’re able to diagnose and treat the issue on the fly, then go for it. But for the rest of us without our PhD in Meetingomics, here’s how to make sure your agendas and standards are effective. 

Beyond the Agenda 

Want to have a good meeting? Create an agenda. It’s been written a million times. But if having an agenda was the answer, we wouldn’t have so many complaints about meetings. The actual first step is align a purpose with your agenda. There are generally six categories. 

  • Decision making - Deciding on a new hire, event planning, selecting a prototype, etc. These meetings require a decision following discussion. 

  • Correct a problem - Responding to an incident, fixing a customer complaint, disciplinary actions, etc. These meetings bring an issue to the attention of a team and identify the best possible action. 

  • Brainstorms - Collecting creative information for client deliverables, marketing content or new feature ideas. Brainstorms can have their own bylaws and standards. 

  • Broadcast information - All-hands meetings, company structure updates, PR and news updates, etc. These instances are reserved for when the information is too important to risk an unread email. 

  • Collect feedback - Reviewing A/B tests, feature reviews, team performance reviews, etc. These help managers and team members collect feedback that would not be shared through other mediums.  

  • Status review - Team cadence meetings, project reviews, one-on-one reviews, etc. These meetings examine the progress of something. 

Defining an agenda category is a great first step. The difficult part is when there’s not enough time to pick a category, let alone create a detailed agenda. Enacting meeting bylaws can help with efficiency when preparation is inadequate. 

Meeting Bylaws

These are some of the meeting rules applied by successful organizations. They’re backed by experts and social science. 

The Intro - American Express Executive Christopher Frank popularized a series of questions to begin meetings: 

  • What is the purpose?: If you’ve picked one of the agenda categories above, this question should be known by everyone on the invite. 

  • What is the issue…in five words or less?: Asking this question to everyone in the room immediately creates a roundtable effect. Most issues are complex enough where you won’t get the same answers, which kicks off discussion and reduces the chances of off-topic chatter and confusion. 

  • Who has already weighed in and what did they have to say about it?: This question also kicks off proper discussion. You’ll find out if the right people are present: those who developed the initial issue, the stakeholders, and the decision makers. Ineffective meetings don’t get this question out until near the end, which brings more discussion. 

Short and Serviceable - The worst default setting in software history is calendar apps that default to a 30-minute or one-hour meeting time. As if every meeting should be 14% of our day (with lunch) and two meetings should be 5% of our week. It may sound insignificant until you factor in conversations with team members, dealing with customers and all the unforeseen happenings of a given day. 

It’s worth noting that there is no scientifically-proven sweet spot for meeting length. Studies that attempt to prove that our attention spans are 10-15 minutes have been inconclusive. And it’s just not true that we have goldfish-like attention spans of 8 seconds (actually, the goldfish thing isn’t true either). Anyway, the point is that it’s not about an exact length of time, it’s about setting the principle that meetings will be short without being rushed. And ramblers shall be cut off (politely). 

No tech - Create a digital coat check or assign a single laptop note taker. It’s a simple, powerful concept that isn’t applied universally. The most common objection to banning smartphones and laptops is, “I need to answer customers!” Solve this by limiting meeting length. Don’t forget that handwritten notes stick to our memory more than typed. 

No spectators - Everything above encourages participation and purpose. Usually meeting spectators are the ones who feel justified bringing their laptops and multi-tasking. If you don’t have a follow-up task, are not impacted, and don’t need to weigh in - there’s no need to be there. At best, the spectator might contribute something vaguely useful, at worst they’ll discourage someone who needs to weigh in from doing so. 

Assign tasks

Steve Jobs and Apple are known for the D.R.I. (directly responsible individual) standard for meetings. Every member of the meeting is assigned a task at the conclusion of the meeting. If someone doesn’t have a task, was their presence needed? If it’s a broadcast-type meeting or team announcement, the D.R.I can be replaced with D.I.I (directly impacted individual), everyone should confirm how they are affected by said announcement and what changes, if any, they will make.

The DocOps Culture

These ideas about meeting agendas and bylaws are only useful if they’re shared amongst a team. Team members assume certain bylaws are common knowledge. Creating documents with an organization’s meeting philosophy and protocol is how everything above can be implemented. 

Relevant documents for better meetings include: 

Meeting Agenda Guidelines - If teams sync up on meeting agendas, it’ll make cross-department transfers smoother. And give new meeting leaders a headstart on how to run their meetings. 

Meeting Bylaws - Determine which meeting bylaws should be used throughout the company. This can be a standalone document or one section of a comprehensive overview. 

Meeting Tools & Resources - One team might be using a SaaS tool while another relies on their calendar functionality. Allow everyone to use the same resources by documenting what’s available. 

Team Charter - Anticipated team and department meetings should be included within a team charter document. This allows team members to prepare and coordinate while giving executives a better look into how everything works. 

Smart agendas and thoughtful bylaws are important, but other organizational factors impact meeting effectiveness. Collect feedback from management and individual contributors to build a comprehensive overview of the status quo. You can then begin to implement these guidelines. 

How Meeting Culture Affects our Workplace

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In 1975, the first-ever meeting between astronauts and cosmonauts took place during the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. Soviets and Americans shook hands through an open hatch and remained docked together for 44 hours. The meeting cooled Cold War tensions and ushered in a new era of technical and scientific collaboration.

That was the last successful meeting in history.

Ok maybe not.

But a general hatred or at least an acceptable level of disgust of meetings is one of the few common bonds of mankind.

Here’s some insight into how we got here and the status of business meetings today.

The Meeting Culture Problem

In 2005, a Microsoft study found more than two-thirds (71%) of respondents said their meetings during the week were unproductive. Twelve years later, similar research was published in the Harvard Business Review. Again, 71% of managers said their meetings were unproductive and inefficient. 

During this 12-year period, we’ve seen a lifetime’s worth of technological advancement. SaaS has exploded, high-speed internet is the norm and the amount of available tools to improve meetings and avoid them when unnecessary has increased exponentially. 

Yet the issue of unproductive meetings is still pervasive. Why? Let’s start with the obvious, no one likes them because they usually suck. We know the culprits. 

The “couldn’t have this been an email?!” meeting - The meeting is brief (thankfully). But covers a singular topic without any collaboration with the participants. From the participant’s perspective, it was unnecessary. From the manager’s perspective, they can’t confirm the email would be read, or even opened. So yes, it was necessary.  

The “amnesia” meeting - The meeting goes well, but it all goes downhill when an airborne form of dementia disperses through the room just before the meeting concludes. Whatever was said, is lost. Whatever was written, is unintelligible. 

The “BYOD” meeting - Surely we are professional enough to bring our laptop to a meeting for the purpose of taking notes or looking up relevant info - wrong. Laptops during meetings usually means “bring your own distraction” with multi-tasking, general tasks of distraction (social media, internet errands, etc) or chatting with coworkers...who are in the same meeting. 

The “remote conference bingo” meeting - If one or more remote employees are teleconferencing, you’ll often begin playing remote conference bingo. 

“Can you hear me now”
“You’re on mute”
Excruciating feedback noise
“Are you still there?”
FREE SPACE
Overtalking… “Sorry, go ahead”
Child and/or animal noises
“Can you repeat that, you broke up”
“Sorry, I was on mute”

The “wanderer” meeting - If casual conversation and camaraderie isn’t common in at a workplace, meetings become the only place for employees to interact. This turns meetings into watercooler sessions with rambling, off-topic conversations. 

The “lone ranger” meeting - By definition, meeting means: “the act of coming together.” So when one person spends the duration of the gathering to pontificate or deliver a one-way sermon, it’s not helpful. More importantly, it won’t deliver the desired result. 

Those are just a few common examples. Meetings can also be repetitive, lack context or direction, important people could be missing, or the whole thing can get interrupted by an unsolvable disagreement. 

We’ve all experienced these issues, and more than a decade of data confirms that people feel the issues above create unproductive outputs - so why is “meeting culture” still such an issue? Some argue it’s not. Meetings are a necessary evil for sharing important information. The problems are simply a byproduct of the system, but do not hinder businesses. 

However if you try to calculate cost for bad meetings, the numbers are astronomical. Doodle’s 2019 State of Meetings Report estimated that two hours of pointless meetings per week equates to $399 billion of wasted money. Another frequently shared estimate says $37 billion. Similar to the issue of tribal knowledge loss, it’s hard to quantity this issue with an exact dollar amount. 

The Distraction Culture Problem

There’s another way to illustrate the problem, the cost of unnecessary distraction. 

Marketers, writers, developers, salespeople and executives all have one thing in common. We require dedicated periods of focus during the day to get things done. This is referred to as “deep work” time and a lack of it hurts productivity. This is one reason why the amount of remote jobs and remote work in general continues to rise, remote workers are generally less prone to distraction. 

A University of California study found it takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds to resume a task after being distracted. A click-tracking study of app developers found that only 10% of the time, were they able to return to their task in less than a minute after a distraction. 

These distractions can be avoided by scheduling meetings well ahead of time and having strict time guidelines. But we know it doesn’t usually work like that. 

The DocOps Culture

There are plenty of SaaS products focused on improving meetings with features such as calendar integration, agenda builders and automated follow-ups. Others rely on Microsoft Office products or Google suite to provide similar functions. 

They might save you time, and make meetings more enjoyable. But they’re not going to overhaul your organization. The DocOps system goes beyond just accepting the problems that meetings bring. 

Instead you can focus on getting to the underlying issue which causes ineffective meetings. This could be a lack of information sharing between departments, a missing central database of information or general confusion on what meetings should and shouldn't be. All of these problems are addressed through the documentation of processes and protocol. 

Identifying your meeting problem, and paying for or instilling solutions to help is a great start. But the rest of this series focuses on how to improve meeting agendas and decision making.