Meeting Dynamics

Posted: October 3, 2008 at 10:37 am in conversation, management

As I am learning the lay of the land at Google, I’ve been initiating one-on-one meetings with people around me so that I can learn what they do and gain some different perspectives on what my group produces. I wrote up my notes after my meeting with one coworker, and after he reviewed what I wrote, he noted that we’d covered most of the material I wrote up in the first fifteen minutes we’d talked. The other thirty-some minutes had been much less information-rich.

He extended this observation to claim that most meetings were like that – they started strong, but then lost steam as people became fatigued. Speakers become less clear in making their points, while listeners become less able to absorb information, so meetings tend to get more inefficient the longer they go. This makes sense to me; as anecdotal evidence, I certainly noticed that by the end of the two and a half hour classes we had at Columbia, I wasn’t processing as well as I did at the beginning.

What’s interesting about this claim to me is that it assumes that the purpose of meetings is to transfer information. That leads to the question of whether other types of meetings would have similar dynamics, or whether it’s possible that some meetings might get more productive as they got longer, rather than less.

In particular, I think any sort of brainstorming meeting takes time to get rolling. The participants need time to ensure everybody is making the same assumptions and to establish common patterns of interactions. It takes time for a group to achieve the state of “flow”, where everybody is moving towards a common purpose. Despite the initial dip in “productivity” while alignment is happening, the payback once everybody is synchronized is tremendous. I’ve written about the dynamics of group flow before, as well as the importance of removing discordant elements that are impediments to achieving flow. Having come up with one counterexample, I started wondering about the dynamics of other types of meetings.

Progress report meetings are a bad idea in general, as the information is generally better sent out via other methods so people can skim what isn’t important rather than making everybody sit through everything. Admittedly, a poorly written email is more confusing than an in-person meeting since presenters have the advantage of instant feedback, but that only highlights the importance of writing clearly. To run some pseudo-numbers, an hour-long meeting attended by ten people uses ten person-hours. Let’s say the presenter could write a clear email or slide deck to present their material, but it takes them four hours to write it instead of the one hour they take to present it unclearly. Let’s also say that the clearly written material now takes people ten minutes to absorb instead of an hour of clarifications. Now the total time spent by the group is 5.5 person-hours (4 hours by the presenter, 1.5 hours by the other nine group members), for a net gain of 4.5 person-hours. Obviously, those numbers are made up, but they illustrate the point that it is often worth sacrificing the time of one person to save the time of the group.

Another type of meeting might be a consensus meeting, where people are trying to agree on a course of action. I think this is similar to a brainstorming meeting in that it takes time for everybody to clarify assumptions and make sure everybody is talking about the same thing and understands the tradeoffs of various decision options. At the same time, it also has the perils of the information transfer meeting in that the longer the meeting goes, the lower everybody’s decision making ability gets due to fatigue. So there’s a need for such meetings to be well-managed, preferably with a clear agenda making the assumptions explicit. The moderator also needs to move the meeting along when it gets bogged down in details that are irrelevant to the decision at hand, so that the decision gets made while people are still relatively fresh.

The point about moderators reminds me that meetings need to be better managed in general. Potential meeting attendees should have a clear idea of what the point of a meeting is before getting there. In an ideal world, every meeting would have a clearly defined set of success criteria, so that potential participants would know what they should expect out of that meeting, and be able to decide whether that is worth their time before attending.

Another danger of meetings is meeting creep. As another coworker observed, any regular meeting that is successful eventually loses value precisely because of its success. If a meeting is delivering useful results, influential people start attending, which induces other people to put their own items on the agenda so as to reach those people, which causes those influencers to go attend other meetings, increasing the value of those meetings, which starts the cycle again. The dynamics of meetings do not just apply to individual meetings, but also to the rise and fall of certain meetings.

I have sometimes wondered if there should ever be regular meetings, or whether meetings should only be called on a one-off basis to address specific problems. Meetings often become entrenched and keep on happening because they have always happened, rather than having a clear agenda each time. While one former coworker extolled the benefits of having regular status meetings so that everybody could check in with each other, I tend to believe that’s best handled by informal mechanisms. Admittedly, if I have to impart information to everybody in my group, a meeting is more efficient than talking to everybody one on one, but still more efficient is an email with the caveat that I have to take the time to write clearly.

I don’t really have a point here, other than to present an incomplete taxonomy of meetings. I’ve been fortunate so far in being able to duck most meetings at Google, because nobody knows I am yet. Unfortunately, as a large company with lots of smart people who want to have their opinion heard, Google has a lot of meetings. In some ways, it reminds me of being at CERN or BaBar, which were particle physics collaborations involving lots of smart people who wanted to be heard, and involved continuous meetings; my advisor at CERN had literally 40 hours of meetings a week to attend, and could only do actual physics work in the evenings. So thinking about how to make meetings more efficient might be a useful topic when I start going to more meetings myself.

6 Responses to “Meeting Dynamics”

  1. Beemer Says:

    I think size of meeting is as important a factor as duration. Different types of meeting work better at different sizes, so it’s important to separate different goals into different meetings.

    If the goal is to make a decision, you want to limit the attendees to the absolute minimum necessary. More people require longer to reach consensus and usually muddy the issues.

    If you want to disseminate information, on the other hand, you want as large a meeting as possible to be sure the information spreads well. You can accomplish that with an email, but often these meeting aren’t just about transmitting data, but have a social function as well, like giving people a venue in which to have a reaction to the news.

    The main purpose of a status report meeting isn’t sharing information, but synchronizing it, making sure that everyone’s on the same page and has a common understanding. I think that often they need to be face-to-face so that you have the high bandwidth necessary to find and correct misconceptions. We’ve been having very productive small (three person) sync meetings, but I think they can scale. The bigger they are, the more you need to have an agenda and a good leader.

    In conclusion, we have both been totally spoiled and always will be by Haus meetings at TEP. Not that they were particularly efficient or anything, but social factors meant we had a really good set of systems for not having to deal with people’s egos, and that made them so much less painful than a lot of the meetings I’ve had to go to since those halcyon days of yore…

  2. Jennifer Says:

    Same goes for blog posts. :)

  3. joe p Says:

    If you don’t attend meetings and get face time with influential executives, you will not go beyond where you are in your career.

  4. peter Says:

    Well, aiming towards a typology of meetings, you could usefully start with a typology of dialogs. The taxonomy which has been most influential in Computer Science (for machine-to-machine interaction protocols) is that proposed by philosophers of argument Doug Walton and Erik Krabbe (in “Commitment in Dialog”, SUNY Press, 1995), which classifies human dialogs according to:
    (a) what the participants know before the dialog starts, and
    (b) what the respective goals of the participants are.

    Information-seeking Dialogs is just one of the 6 types in the (incomplete) W&K typology. The others are Persuasion Dialogs (where one participant seeks to have others endorse some statement), Inquiry Dialogs (where no single participant knows the answer to some unknown question at the outset), Negotiation Dialogs (where participants aim to divide some scarce resource), Deliberation Dialogs (where participants seek to agree a course of action), and Eristic Dialogs (where participants give vent to emotions which may otherwise be expressed as violence). Subsequent research efforts by people in CS have identified a whole range of other dialogs, eg, examination dialogs, information-transfer dialogs, command dialogs, etc.

    Most actual human dialogs are combinations of these atomic types, of course. I beliebe the same is true of meetings. Only rarely do corporate meetings have a single purpose, even when (maybe, especially when) they have a single stated purpose.

  5. peter Says:

    Meetings generally have a bad press, particularly from academics. But academics, as a rule, focus on knowledge and information (and discussions about knowledge and information) over actions. Planning and co-ordinating the actions of people requires interaction between the people involved. A key component of any action-planning task is understanding the consequences of possible alternative actions; because knowledge and experience is distributed in most organizations, learning these consequences requires consultation and socialization. These activities in turn are most efficiently done as F2F meetings. Few academics, even those in B-school, know anything about this, and almost nothing in their academic experience is relevant.

  6. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Organizational Cognition || November || 2008 Says:

    [...] Such conversations are where an organization’s thought processes are made visible (audible?). In other words, if an organization could be perceived as a group mind, then those conversations are the equivalent of watching the synapses between neurons firing. It’s the only way to get insight into how the group mind operates. This may sound a little wacky, but I’m inspired by Edwin Hutchins’s book Cognition in the Wild, where he extracts observations about cognition by watching how a group mind in the form of a navigation team operated. In the best case, meetings can be a reflection of this organizational cognition, an aspect which Peter mentioned in the comments of my meetings post. [...]

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