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  • Geoff Mulgan

If you're running Zoom/Teams/Hangout meetings please spend 5 minutes reading this first ...

Updated: May 5

This blog is about better meetings: it sets out some of what is known about how meetings can make the most of collective intelligence. I'm sharing it now because too many Zoom,Teams and Hangouts are happening without much thought given to how they're run. Most completely ignore basic principles - such as meeting maths. As a result they fail to use even a fraction of the intelligence of the people taking part. This isn't a new problem. Oddly, the vast majority of meetings in business, academia, and politics ignore almost everything that is known about what makes meetings work.

The Problem with Meetings

The formats used for most meetings are old. Most organizations still depend on the board or committee, usually made up of between five and twenty people, for the most crucial decisions. This remains the supreme decision-making body in organizations as varied as Ford and the Politburo, Greenpeace and Google (with twelve sometimes treated as the ideal number). At the level of the nation, we still depend on parliaments and assemblies, usually made up of a few hundred individuals, which meet in formats often little changed over centuries. For more everyday matters, there are committees, teams, or workplace meetings. For the world’s major religions, there are the often-rigid formats of service, prayer, and song. And for the worlds of knowledge and ideas, there are conferences and seminars, with anything from a few dozen to a few thousand participants—again, formats similar to their equivalents a century or more ago.


Many have tried to develop more open, lively alternatives. There are boardrooms like the one at Procter and Gamble that is surrounded by screens, and where the entire global leadership team meets weekly (physically and virtually) to review data on sales, margins, or customer preferences. There are cabinet rooms like the one used by the Estonian government, with screens instead of paper. Some companies have gone to extremes to minimize the curse of meetings. Yahoo! set ten or fifteen minutes as the default for meetings. Others hold meetings standing up. To counter the torrents of useless talk, some cultivate silence. Amazon requires six-page memos to be prepared before any meeting and then read in silence by each person for thirty minutes before a discussion. Some conferences have experimented with giving participants buttons that they can press when they want the speaker to stop—a wonderfully empowering idea, but sadly far from widespread.


Another set of innovations turn meetings inside out, making the formal parts of meetings more like the informal conversations on the sidelines that are frequently so much more enjoyable and memorable. This was the prompt for “open space” methods several decades ago as well as unconferences, World Cafés, Flipped Learning Conferences, Holocracy, and other tools for democratizing larger gatherings, all designed to overturn the stiff formality of the traditional meeting so that anyone can propose topics for discussion and participants can choose what conversations to take part in. Some echo the unstructured worship and creative use of silence pioneered by the Quakers four centuries ago.


Such tools can be a refreshing alternative to the stultified, overprogrammed conference formats of keynotes and panels. But they can also be frustratingly vague, making the whole less than the sum of the parts; they can be hard work to organize, too, and aren’t well suited to sustained problem solving.

There is a vast research literature analyzing precisely how meetings do or don’t work, the subtle strategies we use when talking to others, and the role played by supporting activities, such as providing agendas, documents, minutes, presentations, preparatory e-mails, and exchanges. To work well, they have to counter our tendencies. One is our desire for social harmony, which means that in teams, people tend not to share novel or discomforting information. Another is that our egos tend to become attached to ideas and proposals, and so make it harder for us to see their flaws. A third is our tendency to defer to authority. An opposite one is that although we all make judgments about whose views we respect, and recognize that in any group the value of contributions will vary greatly, we often default to equality, giving equal weight to everyone—an admirable democratic tendency that unfortunately can mean that poor-quality contributions crowd out better ones. Finally, of course many people like the sound of their own voice. A minimum requirement for a good meeting is strict time control.


All these tendencies, if unchecked, lead to worse decisions and degrade collective intelligence.


So what could make meetings better? Here I summarize some of the crucial factors that can help to make a group more like a collective intelligence, and less like a miserably boring committee or conference. All of them are as relevant for meetings on Zoom as they are for ones held in rooms.

Visible Ends and Means

A first step is to ensure that the purposes, structures, and content of the meeting are well understood by all participants. Is the meeting to share information, create something new, pray, or make a decision? It will need a different shape depending on which of these is the main goal. Agendas that are easily accessible beforehand ensure valuable time is not wasted and everyone is up to speed the minute they walk in (and agenda setting can either be done by the most senior person or in a more open way). Sharing background papers and materials encourages a common understanding of the purpose of the meeting, and many digital tools can make these visible. This doesn’t imply that all meetings should be instrumental. Some meetings should be open-ended and exploratory. The point is that this should be clear.

Active Facilitation and Orchestration

Even the most motivated groups don’t self-organize themselves well. That’s why the role of the chair or facilitator is so important for getting good results. The role doesn’t have to be filled by the most powerful person in the room; it may be better played by someone junior, given the temporary authority to ensure the meeting achieves its purposes and sticks to time.

To do their job well, they need to keep the meeting focused on its goals. Yet they can also help the group to think well by countering the risks of anchoring (the first person to speak sets the agenda and frames). They can work hard to avoid the risks of unequal contribution (with higher status counting for more than greater knowledge and experience). Other methods like leaving periods of silence for groups to reflect and digest can improve the quality of discussion. So can encouraging participants to write down their most important thoughts before the meeting, allowing the most junior person to speak first (as in the past in the US Supreme Court) or interweaving different scales of conversation (from plenary to smaller groups, down to discussions in pairs and back).


Vary the rhythms

Good meetings vary their formats and rhythms to encourage different kinds of conversation. They can switch from plenary to small groups to pairs and back again (as many now do on Zoom etc). They can have bursts of music to establish a mood, or a minute in silence looking at an art work. In small groups everyone can be asked to take a turn speaking. Chat can provide a running commentary, or shared links, and Q&A with voting can capture the groups mood and concerns. Many of these innovations that are designed into the online meeting softwares will, I hope, become more normal in everyday face to face meetings since most of the time they amplify the group's collective intelligence.

Explicit Argument

Good meetings encourage the explicit articulation and interrogation of arguments, and ideally allocate people roles to interrogate them. These roles can be formalized or left more informal. The key is to avoid skating over the uncomfortable aspects of disagreement. Psychologists have shown that people have a strong confirmation bias. This means that when we reason, we try to find arguments that support our own idea. At an individual level, this can lead us to make bad decisions. But from a collective point of view it can be extremely effective, since it encourages people to develop the best versions of their arguments. Confirmation biases cancel each other out and then push the group to a better solution.


Giving a structure to argument then becomes an important design challenge. Parliaments do this through formal debates, and courts through the presentation of evidence and interrogation of witnesses. Some hedge funds interestingly incentivized disagreement, rewarding the people who had disagreed with trades that then turned out to succeed (and the account by Ray Dalio, founder of the world’s largest hedge fund, Bridgewater, is a good summary of the value of encouraging argument and criticism). For argument to work well, meetings benefit from structured sequences—so that, for example, discussion focuses first on facts and diagnosis, before moving on to prescription and options (which tend to be more fraught as well as more bound up with interests and egos). The general point is that conscious, deliberate processes usually improve the quality of discussion.

Multiplatform and Multimedia

The best meetings - whether face to face or online - use multiple tools in parallel. They combine talk and visualization, and small talk as well as plenaries involving everyone. A consistent finding of much research is that people learn and think better when supported by more than one type of communication. Information presented in different forms aids learning and understanding. A written five-page report, presentation, and selection of images combined with a verbal discussion will have differing effects, but can add up to a better understanding of the issues. This is also why simple rules can help, such as no numbers without a story, and no story without numbers, or no facts without a model, and no model without facts.

Reining in the Extroverts, Opinionated, and Powerful

Social psychologists using survey and observational techniques to measure group intelligence have shown that they correlate only partly with the average and maximum intelligence of individual group members. One recent psychology study found that three factors were significantly correlated with the collective intelligence of a group: the average social perceptiveness of the group members (using a test designed to measure autism that involves judging feelings from photographs of people’s eyes), relatively equal turn taking in conversation, and the percentage of women in a group (which partly reflects their greater social perceptiveness). Extroverts dominate the typical meeting. As a result, many participants may not feel comfortable contributing. Formats that make it easy for everyone to contribute, rein in the most vocal, and give people time to think before speaking are likely to work better.


Deliberate Divisions of Labour

The best meetings take advantage of a division of labour with distinct roles, including facilitation, record keeping, synthesis and catalysis, court jester, and professional skeptic. They then end with explicitly distributed tasks given to participants. For the meeting itself, methods that distribute roles among participants include Edward de Bono’s “six thinking hats,” where different-colored metaphoric hats open up different perspectives to thinking.White addresses the facts and what is known; black provides caution and critical thinking; red emphasizes feelings, including intuition and hunches; blue manages the process, ensuring it is followed by the group correctly; green promotes creativity, new ideas, and options; and yellow encourages optimism, looking for values, benefits, and advantages. The idea is that the interaction of these viewpoints leads to better outcomes, especially when participants try out different roles rather than becoming fixed in just one.


David Kantor’s “four player model” has a similar approach. Groups are divided into four roles: movers, who initiate ideas and offer direction; followers, who complete what is said, help others clarify their thoughts, and support what is happening; opposers, who challenge what is being said and question its validity; and bystanders, who notice what is going on and provide perspective on what is happening, offering a set of actions people can take while in a conversation. In a healthy meeting, people will move between these roles. It’s easy to imagine other variants; what’s important is to formalize differentiated roles (which many of us hear as inner voices when we’re trying to make a decision). Even better, tasks are distributed to named individuals at the end of the meeting, so that these can then be tracked. Knowing that this is going to happen makes it more likely that people will pay attention.

Meeting Mathematics

There is no perfect mathematical formula for meetings, but experience suggests something close to a law that correlates the complexity of the task, number of participants, available knowledge and experience, time, and degree of shared language or understanding. This is particularly true for meetings that aim to come to a conclusion or make a decision.

The most common reason meetings fail is that they don’t conform with meeting mathematics: there are too many people or too little time, too little relevant knowledge and experience, too sprawling a topic, or insufficient common grounding. A simple task, with few participants, and well understood common language and references, may lead to quick results. Whereas a complex task, with many participants and not much shared frame of reference, may take infinite time to resolve, and even if the time isn’t infinite, it may feel so.


Diversity

In framing understanding of an issue or mapping out options, diversity brings great advantages, as does tapping into many minds. But translating that diversity into good decisions usually requires the added element of a common grounding or culture. So strong organizations try to bring in a diverse workforce as well as tap the brainpower of their partners and customers, and then funnel decisions through a group that also has a strong common understanding and language along with a depth of relevant knowledge. On their own, crowds aren’t wise.

Good Meetings Are Visibly Cumulative

Meetings rarely happen in isolation. Some two million hours of work may go into the design of a large building or car, including many hundreds of meetings. There are complex tools to coordinate the efforts of a large work team as well as simple devices like feedback forms and regular reviews that link any meeting to previous ones on the same topic (through traditional means like minutes, or more modern ones like data dashboards and lessons learned exercises).


Avoidance

Newspapers and news shows fill up their space regardless of how much news has happened. The same is often true of meetings. Organizations schedule regular cycles of committee, board, and group meetings, and then feel impelled to fill up the available time. This is one of the sources of frustration and boredom in many organizations, because it means that many meetings feel pointless. An alternative is to leave time slots in, but more frequently cancel meetings when they’re not needed, radically shorten them to align with the number and seriousness of issues needing to be addressed, and consult with participants on whether the meeting is needed, and if so, how long it should be. Often people feel uncomfortable canceling meetings for fear that it implies that no work is being done. Similarly, people in big bureaucracies feel uncomfortable not attending meetings—for fear that they may miss out on vital decisions or not be seen as a team player. The opposite is a better approach—canceling or shortening meetings as a sign of effective day-to-day communication.


A much longer version of this blog can be found in my book 'Big Mind', along with many references. Here I've provided some of the main points to save you time - time which, if you really wish, you can choose to spend in more meetings ....