Over my career, I have likely spent more than 15,000 hours in meetings. The excellent sessions had the right people in the room. All the participants came to the meeting well prepared. We debated the matters at hand. We built on each others’ ideas – using the collective intelligence of the group for a full and meaningful discussion. We achieved consensus decisions. Those attending the meeting left energized, supporting the decision, and ready to sell it to stakeholders.
How many of your meetings fall into the excellent category?
For me, about one in ten.
The most common reasons that I have seen meetings fail are:
- wrong people in the room
- too many people
- lack of clear purpose
- inability to focus on the right issues
- too sprawling a topic
- poor facilitation
- too little time / too much time
- poor involvement by one or more members
- too little relevant knowledge and experience
- failing to use the collective intelligence of the assembled group
- some attendees only focusing on the interests of their constituency
- reliance on bad information
- insufficient common grounding
- inadequate preparation – by either the organizer or the attendees or both
There is a lot of research literature analyzing how meetings do or do not work. These studies include providing agendas, documents, minutes, presentations, preparatory e-mails, and evaluations.
Effective meetings boil done to engaging the collective intelligence of those attending to develop a path forward.
Few people thrive on chaos. Most people despise chaos. Moreover, we seek order. Protecting the status quo is often the easiest way for us to maintain order. This trend is especially true if our ideas and proposals lead to the current state. However, it makes it harder for us to see (acknowledge) the flaws. We ignore fact and logic to keep the peace. Thus, we tend not to share novel or discomforting information at meetings. Often, we shoot the messenger of disruptive news. This behaviour keeps the collective intelligence of our colleagues on the shelf.
As the meeting facilitator, drawing out the collective intelligence is your most important job. Generally speaking, pay attention to the six barriers prevent engaging collective intelligence. Understand that all six (times the number of participants) will be in play for the entire meeting.
Accordingly, most people:
- desire social harmony
- are attached to the status quo
- defer to authority
- will not rock the boat
- avoid considering possible disruptions that will make their work redundant
- make judgments about whose views they respect while ignoring the facts
We recognize that in any group the value of contributions will vary significantly. However, most people default to equality, giving equal weight to everyone. While this an admirable democratic tendency, unfortunately, it often means that poor quality contributions crowd out better ones.
All these trends lead to sub-optimal decisions and degrade collective intelligence.
On their own, a group of people is not wise. Collective intelligence emerges from the collaboration, cooperative efforts, and competition of many individuals. The brilliance appears in consensus decision making. It results from the synergies among experts and the sharing of data, information, and knowledge.
Collective intelligence is a form of universally distributed intelligence, constantly enhanced, coordinated in real time, and resulting in the effective mobilization of skills. The basis and goal of collective intelligence is mutual recognition and enrichment of individuals rather than the cult of fetishized or hypostatized communities.” - Pierre Lévy
Here are some of the crucial factors that can help to make more use a group’s collective intelligence.
Clear purpose and processes
One problem commonly afflicting meetings is unclear objectives. If you are not sure what you are trying to accomplish, you can be sure it will not happen. Extra time at the front end will produce a better result.
As the meeting organizer, you have the responsibility to ensure that all participants understand the purposes, structures, and content of the meeting, committee, or board.
Is the purpose of the meeting to brainstorm, share information, plan, create something new, network, or make a decision? Your primary goal should dictate the shape of the meeting. Moreover, design the agenda and the format to capitalize on the collective intelligence of the group.
- Ensure efficient use of the available time by providing an agenda beforehand. You want everyone up to speed the minute the participants walk into the room. It is best to set agendas openly - circulate a draft in advance and send a final agenda before the meeting. Do not waste time redoing the agenda at the start of the session. Have you attended any meetings that only set the agenda, review the minutes and schedule the next meeting?
- Ensure a shared understanding of the purpose of the meeting. Provide background papers and materials. The use of links to the draft and final agenda helps satisfy the varying information needs of attendees. Inspire folks to do a more in-depth dive and reward them with more airtime at the meeting.
- More meetings should be open-ended and exploratory. The point is that this should be clear on the agenda. Structure these agendas as thought-provoking cascading questions. See our approach to developing strategy.
- Book the meeting space for 30 minutes before the scheduled start. Show “coffee and networking” 15 minutes before the scheduled start on the agenda. Start on time. Ideally, you have an extra 15 minutes in the space for after meeting discussion. Often the richest information is exchanged informally.
Everyone is busy, and groups do not self-organize. That is why the role of the chair or facilitator is so vital for getting good results. Try giving the authority to prepare and facilitate the meeting to someone other than the most influential person in the room. This approach will enhance preparation. The assembly is more likely to achieve its purposes and stick to the allotted time.
It is also an excellent growth opportunity for a high potential employee. When assigning the authority to them, ask them to review this article. Then follow up and discuss their approach. Coach them to:
- Stick roughly to the designated times and ask the group’s permission to exceed time noting it may be at the expense of other items.
- Focus on the high-quality contributions crowd out poorer ones - not default to a democratic tendency, giving equal weight to everyone.
- Start on time. You waste time waiting for the late arrivals.
It makes me crazy when the chair of the meeting accommodates people who are late. Some do it by delaying the start of the meeting. Others do it by recapping the session for each new arrival. You lose five or ten minutes for the entire group with these practices. Stop penalizing the punctual. Respect people’s time – start on time. Soon enough people will get the idea. No one likes to wander in during the middle of a compelling discussion. Do this a few times, and you will develop a reputation for promptness. I know managers (though not enough) who have super-punctual reputations.
Facts and Logic
For each agenda item, start by answer the following questions for the participants:
- Why is this an issue (problem or opportunity)?
- Why is it important to discuss it at this time?
- What outcome of the discussion should the group expect?
Next, encourage the explicit articulation and interrogation of arguments. Get both sides out. For an argument to work well, meetings benefit from structured sequences. The discussion focuses first on facts and diagnosis, before moving on to prescription and options. The latter tend to be more bound up with interests and egos. These roles can be formalized before the meeting or left more informal. The key is to avoid skating over the uncomfortable aspects of disagreement. Conscious, deliberate processes improve the quality of discussion.
Do not jump to the conclusion that you have to deal with an issue just because it is on the agenda. Intentionally doing nothing may be your best option.
Researchers have studied the effectiveness of group decision-making for years. In the report, Decide and Deliver: 5 Steps to Breakthrough Performance in Your Organization, the authors determined that the optimum size for a decision-making group was seven people. Also, for each person added, the group’s decision making effectiveness was reduced by ten percent.
I have served on Boards with more than 25 members. So, the maximum theoretical effectiveness of these Boards is about 15%.
Another study found that the most effective number was five but then noted that the effectiveness of the group decision making in groups between five and eight neither increases nor decreases.
Deliberative group decision making
If you want to take advantage of the benefits of deliberative group decision making, have five to eight members — consider the complexity of the task, available knowledge and experience, time, and degree of shared understanding. This approach is particularly useful for meetings that aim to come to a conclusion or make a decision.
A simple task, with few participants, and well-understood common language and references, lead to quick results. Whereas a complex task, with many participants and not a shared frame of reference, may take an infinite time to resolve, and even if the time is not unlimited, it may feel so.
In framing an understanding of an issue or mapping out options, diversity brings significant advantages, as does tapping into the collective intelligence. However, translating that diversity into good decisions usually requires the added element of a common grounding or culture.
Gather input from your workforce as well as tap the insights of your partners and customers. Establish a group that also has a strong common understanding along with a depth of relevant knowledge to digest the input and come up with the decision.
Online meetings can gather intelligence—knowledge, ideas, observations, and options. The most successful online collective intelligence projects tend to combine quite precise tasks and reasonable amounts of time, and are more about gathering and assembling than judging. As a result, they do not require so much natural framing or the subtle cues needed for ongoing collaborative projects.
Expressive People have the most to say but may not add the most value
I have listened to may people eloquently talk for ten to twenty minutes and say absolutely nothing that advances the item. Also, some people must speak on everything – often they use their time telling the assembly that they agree with everything that was just said — without making a compelling case why the suggested direction will achieve objectives. Airtime is the manna of meetings. Four-time Professional Engineers Ontario chair Walter Bilanski passed along the following advice to new board members, “if you cannot be informative at least be entertaining!”
A psychology study by Anita Williams Woolley et al. found that collective intelligence does not correlate with the average or maximum personal knowledge of group members. However, it correlates with the average social sensitivity of group members, the equality in the distribution of conversational turn-taking, and the proportion of females in the group.
Extroverts dominate the typical meeting. As a result, many participants may not feel comfortable contributing. Formats that make it easy for everyone to participate, rein in the most vocal, and give people time to think before speaking will produce better results.
Get the right people in the room
Ask yourself, carefully:
- Do all of these people need to attend? (Remember you will be 10% less effective for every person beyond seven people!)
- Could some of them receive a brief email summary or quick call afterwards?
- Could you ask them if they have anything to contribute to the topic(s) for the meeting?
Not all people have a mix of the traits that make them excel in situations where collective intelligence such as a committee member. Our talent analytics can determine if an individual will meet or exceed expectations as a committee member, committee chair, board member, or board chair. Competency-based selection creates more productive committees and boards.
Knowing what traits are required for success as a committee/board member helps you select productive contributors who will add to the collective intelligence of the group.
We think of diversity in discrete blocks like gender, race, location, etc. The Diversity Leadership Council at John Hopkins University developed the Diversity Wheel. The centre of the wheel represents internal dimensions that are usually most permanent or visible. The outside of the wheel represents the dimensions we acquire throughout a lifetime. The combinations of all of these dimensions influence our values, beliefs, behaviours, experiences and expectations and make us all unique as individuals.
A diversity of thought is essential
Let us explore how group intelligence or how intellect manifests itself. We must be able to conceptualize solutions to problems to be successful. Individuals uniquely use a combination of two or three of the following problem-solving styles: Analysis, Experiential Learning, Theoretical Reasoning, Common Sense, Street Sense, Linguistics, Quantitative Orientation, Intuition, Innovation or Reflectiveness. Diversity in problem-solving intelligence occurs when the members of the group apply their unique problem-solving style to the problem or opportunity. A recent McKenzie study stated that companies with the most ethnically diverse executive teams—concerning full representation and the of variety or the mix of ethnicities are to 33 percent more likely to outperform peers on profitability.
Boards and Committees
Committees can benefit from many of the same approaches that make board meetings more effective: an overview by the committee chair at the beginning of each meeting, a strategic focus for discussions, prioritized agendas, an annual calendar of committee meetings and major decisions, consent agendas, and evaluation of committee meetings.” — Bain and Company
Getting the right people on boards and committees is essential. Selection based on competencies is critical to the success of the committee. The appointees must have adequate time to devote to the organization’s affairs.
“To be accepted as ‘fit and proper’, a director must have the necessary skills, knowledge, experience, diligence and soundness of judgment to undertake the duties of the role.” – Australian Institute for Company Directors
The board is responsible for ensuring that it has represented on it the skills, knowledge, and experience needed to steer the company forward strategically. While different directors can bring different technical skills and expertise to a board, there are personal qualities that are essential in all directors. Directors are appointed to the board because of their specific skills, knowledge, and experience.
It is important to acknowledge that not all directors will possess each necessary ability, but the board, as a collective, must possess them. However, if the group cannot capitalize on the collective intelligence without the right behavioural traits, performance will be sub-optimal, and the business will suffer.
The competencies of a director are experience, knowledge, skills, behavioural traits, attitudes, values, and beliefs of the person. Consider the following framework for considering these competencies:
Experience in and understanding of the industry in which the organization operates.
Technical/professional skills and specialist knowledge to assist with ongoing aspects of the board’s role, including:
- Strategic expertise – the ability to understand and review the strategy
- Risk management – experience in managing areas of significant risk to the organization, legal and compliance requirements
- Managing people and achieving change – including experience as either a CEO or senior member of a management team
The essential governance knowledge and understanding all directors should possess or develop if they are to be useful board members. Includes some specific technical competencies as applied at board level. Also, the director needs to:
- Understand their fiduciary duties, obligations, and responsibilities
- Have a genuine interest in the organization and its business
- Be an active contributor, as there is no room on boards today for those who do not contribute
Behavioural Traits of Great Board/Committee Members
Below are the attributes and competencies enabling individual board members to use their knowledge and skills to function well as team members and to interact with key stakeholders. These include:
- Integrity – fulfilling a director’s duties and responsibilities, putting the organization’s interests before personal interests, acting ethically
- Community – an interest in the community served
- Curiosity and courage – a director must have the curiosity to ask questions and the courage to persist in asking or to challenge management and fellow board members where necessary
- Interpersonal skills – a director must work well in a group, listen well, be tactful but able to communicate their point of view frankly
- Humanitarianism – caring about people
- Intuition - good business instincts and acumen, ability to get to the crux of the issue quickly
- Street Sense*R – while politicians need to be high in “Street Sense” to achieve deals with multiple stakeholders, directors are the opposite - they need the facts to act in the best long-term interest of the organization (*R-reverse scored)
- Profit Awareness - a director, even in not-for-profits, must understand the financial viability of the organization for its long-term success
Committees require the same thoughtful attention. They need a similar competency framework. While the risk of having a non-performing committee is less than a non-performing board, select members using the same approach. In non-for-profits, often long-serving volunteers are appointed to the board and board leadership rather than the appointing the most competent.
Our talent analytics provide a benchmarked assessment of high performing board and committee members. We also benchmark the chairs. This element is an essential part of your selection process.
Meetings benefit from conditions that make it easier to pay attention and engage with the other participants. The factors include sufficient natural light, quiet and space, and giving people chances to move around (and not staying seated for more than an hour or two in any one stretch).
The physical shape also influences the quality of the meetings. For instance, square or circular meeting spaces allow everyone eye contact with everyone else. This layout promotes greater engagement among the participants. The boardroom table and theatre-style seating are poor designs from this perspective.
The use of laptops or smartphones during meetings detract from full attention. Ask participants to be present at the meeting, if they have an urgent issue to deal with, do it outside of the meeting room.
Meetings fill up their time regardless of how much happens
Schedule your session for half the time you originally planned. Meetings are like accordions — they stretch naturally to fill the allotted space. If you schedule a meeting for an hour, you will probably take the whole time, even if a fair amount consists of pleasant, random off-topic conversation. Likely, if you schedule that same meeting for 30 minutes, you will do what you need to in a tighter period.
Organizations schedule regular cycles of committee, board, and group meetings, and then feel compelled to fill up the available time. These unnecessary meetings create frustration, disengagement, and boredom in many organizations. Many meetings feel pointless.
Leave time slots and consider:
- cancelling meetings when they are not needed
- shortening them, or moving them online — align with the number and seriousness of issues
- consulting with participants on whether the meeting is necessary, and if so, how long it should be
Many people feel uncomfortable cancelling meetings for fear that it implies that nothing is being done. Similarly, people feel uncomfortable not attending meetings—for fear that they may miss out on vital decisions or not be a team player.
Cancelling or shortening meetings as a sign of active day-to-day communication in an organization. It respects people’s time.
Good a Functional Evaluation
A simple evaluation at the meeting — ask the group three questions:
- What went well?
- Even better if?
- Did we use the collective intelligence in the room effectively?
Be cautious as the feedback is coloured by the "kumbaya effect."
Better – A Follow-up Survey
Survey the participants within 24 hours of the meeting. With a few specific questions:
- Were you fully engaged?
- Were the participants engaged efficiently?
- Did we use the collective intelligence in the room to make good decisions?
- Were the right people in the room? If not, who was missing?
- Was the meeting a good use of your time?
- Make it easy to complete and ask for comments.
Best – Self-Evaluation
Getting meaningful feedback from participants is difficult. I prefer to have them working on the action items. So, use this list as a meeting planning checklist. After the meeting ask yourself - Do this sounds like our meeting?
- Meeting purpose and goals are defined.
- A detailed agenda with topics and times are available before and during meetings. It included a review of actions and issues from the last session.
- The right people are present at the right time with the right info, right authority, and
- We anticipate problems and prepare strategies to manage them in advance of the meeting. Smooth sailing!
- Participants know the expectations in advanced and are ready to contribute.
- Meeting technology (computers, projectors, screens, phones) are working and prompted and ready to go. Remote attendees included.
- Rooms are selected to fit the meeting. Furniture, supplies, space, outlets, etc. encourage creative and productive meeting.
- Flip charts, markers, supplies or technology for group memory are available.
- Meetings start and end on time. Segments run remarkably close to budgeted time.
- People stay focused on the issue at hand. One discussion at a time to resolve the matter before moving on.
- Win/win decisions are made using tools that offer comparative analysis, objectivity and lead to consensus.
- Interruptions to meetings are prevented or dealt with swiftly and subtly — loosing no momentum.
- Members participate freely and can truly buy-in.
- Meetings are practical, dynamic and interactive. Participants are involved, excited, empowered, and informed.
- There is a sense of accomplishment and a feeling of progress. People look forward to meetings that assist their work.
- The tone of meetings is positive regardless of the topic. Discussions are professional, respectful, all opinions valued.
- The meeting purpose and goals are achieved. The sponsor will surely be pleased with the outcome.
- A list of actions and owners and target dates is defined. Everyone knows what their next steps.
- There is a plan to deal with issues that did not get resolved or were out of the scope of the meeting. They will not get dropped.
- A communication plan for resulting decisions, actions and discussion highlights is in place. People who need this information get it when they need it.
If you do all the above, you will start to hear your meeting participants say, “great meeting — we accomplished a lot” as they leave. They will also hang around after the meeting adjourns as they were engaged and found the meeting to be enjoyable and productive.
Still curious to learn more about productive meetings?
Let us know! We are incredibly passionate about Behavioral DNA and the impact this scientific insight can have on your teams and your business.
Using SuccessFinder, people develop a solid and deep trust in each other and in the team's purpose — they feel free to express feelings and ideas. Everybody is working toward the same goals. Team members are clear on how to work together, how to contribute their unique strengths, and how to accomplish tasks.
Team members complete the assessment online, we then provide you report and personal feedback via video call. We offer the service worldwide. We’d love to hear from you!