Effective meetings result in solid business decisions. However, far too many decision meetings are doomed from the outset.
Decisions flow through organizations at every level constantly, and meetings are where important business decisions regularly happen. Yet many executives are stumped when describing their own experience of meetings. Some business leaders we know wonder openly how they can dedicate so much time (commonly six to seven hours a day and often more) to an activity that feels so unproductive.
In a recent McKinsey survey, “61 percent of executives said that at least half the time they spent making decisions, much of it surely spent in meetings, was ineffective. And just 37 percent of respondents said their organizations’ decisions were both high-quality and timely.”
How can we get better, faster business decisions from the meetings they attend or lead? Certainly, getting steeped in best practices is wise, as there is a wealth of good thinking available on the topic of decision making? That is... looking closer to basics, specifically at the preparation that should happen (but perhaps doesn’t) before your own meetings.
When it comes to decision making in meetings, seek a practical grounding in areas such as spurring productive debate in meetings, slaying cognitive biases in them, and designing meetings for routinely overlooked groups.
Finally, develop your own list and share it with your team. The state of management thinking on this topic will continue to evolve –and you’ll want to evolve with it. Three questions...
Should we even be meeting at all?
Removing unessential meetings is perhaps the single biggest gift to an executive’s productivity. Begin by examining your repetitive meetings, as these are a fertile place for otherwise useful and timely decision topics to change in unproductive ways.
Poor clarity around decision rights invigorated wide-ranging discussions but not decisions, and over time this behavior becomes a habit in meetings – a habit that worsened a general lack of responsibility among some executives.
This is not to say that time management isn’t part of the solution. It is, and if ingrained habits or cultural expectations encourage meetings as your company’s default mode, then soul searching is in order. If you are one of those leaders who reflexively accepts meeting invitations as they appear in your calendar, then you should hit pause. Your goal should be to treat your leadership capacity – a finite resource – as seriously as your company treats financial capital (an equally finite one).
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When recurring meetings are needed, check with the other decision makers to ensure the frequency is right – can weekly become monthly? Look also to see if the decision might be best made by an individual.
Remember: Delegating a decision to someone doesn’t mean that the person can’t still consult others for guidance. It just probably doesn’t require an entire committee to do so.
Finally, it’s tough to spot problems when no one is looking. At the healthcare company, like at many organizations, it wasn’t anyone’s responsibility to ensure that senior-management meetings had clear, non-overlapping purposes. A chief of staff can be invaluable here, as we will.
What is the purpose of the meeting for anyway?
It may seem elementary, but you can recall meetings (and large-group meetings in particular) where the lines between sharing, discussing, and deciding were blurred or absent—or where the very purpose of the meeting is unclear, In such situations, meetings may begin to seem frustrating and even futile.
Your goal: Treat your leadership aptitude as seriously as your company treats financial capital.
One popular challenge is when each product had a group of backers at the meeting who didn’t want to see their work torpedoed. The mix of interests and motivations in the room, combined with the lack of organization and role clarity (a factor we will explore next) spelled trouble. The result was a freewheeling mix of provocative, meandering, inconclusive discussions. At times, important questions would get raised that couldn’t be answered, in part because participants didn’t have the information they needed beforehand. In one meeting, for example, the team didn’t know the status of a major customer’s own product-development efforts. This was vital because the customer’s products would rely on the ones being developed by the industrial company. In other cases, meeting attendees were expected to review the relevant material as the meeting took place around them.
To tackle the problems, the company tapped a leader to serve in a chief-of-staff capacity for the effort. This colleague coordinated the materials before the meeting, ensured that they were distributed in advance, and along the way verified that the proper staff work had been done in the first place. This minimized the “informational” aspects of the meetings themselves, saving time while in fact better preparing the participants with the information they needed.
This colleague also helped run the meetings differently – for instance, by keeping the lines clear between discussion and debate sessions, and the actual decision making itself (following the principles outlined in the exhibit). This allowed for richer, more thorough conversations about the products and debates around the trade-offs involved, and ultimately led to better decisions. Indeed, for infrequent, high-stakes decisions, the quality of debate among the top team is the most important success factor. Finally, the company trained additional executives in these skills so that the role could be reproduced and the benefits scaled.
A final note. Just because a decision is made doesn’t mean people are committed to it. As the industrial company’s example suggests, people bring their own motivations to meetings, and there are plenty of cases where a “yes” in the meeting turns into a “maybe” in the following days and weeks. Part of the solution for this is to make sure the next steps are clear, including the nitty-gritty details of execution. After all, a decision only matters if it can be implemented. The broader challenge, of course, is making sure that all must feel they have a stake in the outcome.
What is everyone’s role?
Just as it’s crucial for meetings to have a clear purpose and for attendees to know whether they’re meant to be debating or deciding, it is equally important to know who makes the call. Indeed, even if it’s clear who the decider is – and even if it’s you – it’s a mistake to meet without fully considering the roles of the other participants and how they are meant to influence the outcome. This was part of the challenge faced by the industrial company’s product-development team: where the backers of a given product sought to informally veto any moves that would kill or delay it, even though they had no explicit authority to do so.
Poor role clarity can kill productivity and cause frustration when decisions involve complicated business activities that cut across organizational boundaries.