What academics can learn from business III: good meeting culture

This is the third in a series of things I think academia would do well to look to and learn from business (also see how many business hats an academic wears and business advice books). When I left the business world and went back to graduate school in 1997, there were many things I liked better about the academic culture. But there was one thing that jumped out at me as immediately badly flawed in academic culture: meetings. Everything about them – when held, why held, how held. To be sure a good meeting is a combination of artful guidance by its leaders and participants and a bit of luck. But there are some clear rules of thumb that help.

First and foremost, why are you having a meeting? If its only because you regularly have meetings at this frequency, that’s a bad reason. In practice there are about six common reasons people hold meetings:

  1. To transmit information – basically announcements – “applications for graduate TAs for fall semester are due in a week”, “the university now requires timesheets to be signed by a supervisor whose last name begins with Z”, etc
  2. To brainstorm – “how should we pitch this grant?”, “what are the biggest strengths and weaknesses in our undergraduate curriculum?”
  3. To take a decision – “Which candidate for the faculty job are we hiring?”, “Are we going to ask the dean for a position in subfield X or subfield Y?”, “How is the field season to be organized?”
  4. To edit – Let’s write the job ad, promotion letter, etc
  5. To teach/mentor – “How can I resolve my issues in my field experiment?”, “How do I do this tricky bit of analysis?”, “How does a scientist attack a question?”
  6. To build collegiality and culture – lets make sure we all like each other and build trust, lets transmit our shared values to the newest members of the group.

Now lets think about what a meeting really is. It’s taking half a dozen or more people away from their regular work and putting them in a room where interactions are by definition less efficient because of the large number of people present. So with that lens, which of the above tasks really deserve to be a meeting, and if it should be a meeting how should it be organized?

  1. Transmitting information – the most common reason academics call meetings and the least valid reason to have a meeting. We didn’t get where we are being unable to absorb and process written information! There is no reason to get 20 busy people together to more or less read out loud a list of announcements! Send it out in writing. There are two common objections: a) they won’t read it if it is in an email, and b) everybody will have the same questions. It just might be possible that if they chose not to read it, they have done so intentionally because they decided it wasn’t worth their time! And maybe everybody will have the same question. But maybe everybody will have a different question and other people’s questions are useless or obvious and yet everybody has to sit through them anyway. Don’t hold meetings just to transmit information! If you really want to make sure they read it and process it, send it out as an “executive summary bullet point list email from your advisor/boss/department chair/dean” just before a meeting (which trust me most people will read it if presented as such) and then at the meeting, if you really have to, ask if there any questions. But better yet, just send it out. And don’t use meetings for one-way transmissions of information.
  2. Brainstorming – this is a good reason to meet. People feed off of each other and creativity builds when everybody is in the same room. But have a focused question that you are brainstorming on. Brainstorming typically involves a diamond shaped process of getting wider and looser and then bringing it back to a focus. This requires time, so be sure to plan time. One hour is rarely an adequate amount of time to brainstorm. And be sure to have a leader who understands this process which looks rather different than, e.g., taking a decision.
  3. Taking a decision – another good reason to meet. Partly because a better decision can be reached as a group (hive thinking), and partly for buy-in so people cannot second guess a decision if they were there. It also helps people on the losing side of a decision to know why the decision was taken and that the consensus was legitimately reached. Decisions meetings should clearly lay out the decision point and relevant information by email BEFORE you meet, and decision meetings should end when the decision is taken. Decision meetings that start with “let’s bring everybody up to speed” are bad meetings. Anybody who cares about the outcome ought to be willing to read a brief before they get to the meeting (not to mention they likely know most of it). If the goal is to take a decision, have a “you snooze, you lose” culture. If you do not show up, you are not allowed to second guess the outcome.
  4. Editing – by and large a bad reason to meet. For sure a bad reason for a lot of people to meet. You don’t want more than 2-3 people editing something at the same time. And editing sequentially by email with track changes almost always is more effective. To make sequential editing by email, it is important that somebody starts a good first draft and then is open to change. People need something to react to. Sending out a blank page is not an effective way to start a group editing process!
  5. Teaching/mentoring – i.e. transmission of complex ideas. A good reason to get in the same room. You need the non-verbal queues of what is getting across and what isn’t. And good teaching is likely to have a component of two-way creative thinking (i.e brainstorming) too. But be sure to distinguish teaching of complex topics from simple transmission of information (#1) before deciding to make it a meeting. And be sure to ask how many people need to be in the room. Efficiency of transmission goes down exponentially with the # of people present.
  6. Collegiality and culture – a great reason to get people together. But its a really bad idea to call it a meeting! Call it an event. Make it fun. Meet not around a table.

So in summary you should only call a meeting if there is a goal that clearly benefits from having everybody in the same room around a table. Brainstorming, taking decisions, and teaching meet these definitions. Transmitting information and editing words don’t benefit from having people in the same room. And  building collegiality and culture benefits from having everybody in the same room, but you shouldn’t think of it as a meeting.

So that covers why (and why not) to have a meeting. What are the key points about HOW to have a meeting? My key rules of a good meeting culture break into two parts. What should happen before a meeting starts (and you can project an inefficient meeting if they didn’t happen before the meeting) and key leadership jobs during the meeting.

BEFORE THE MEETING (GOOD PREPARATION):

  1. Know who is responsible for the meeting. This means they should clearly communicate the goal in advance (#2) but they should also ensure that everybody is heard (#5) (sitting on loudmouths who like to hear their voice and drawing out the quiet types). They also should feel their pride is on the line for making it a good meeting and be able to be held accountable for an inefficient meeting. They should actually prepare for the meeting (and prepare others) and not just wing it.
  2. Don’t have a meeting unless everybody knows BEFORE they get there what type of meeting it is (its really confusing and awkward when people show up expecting to take a decision but the leader tries to brainstorm) and everybody knows what the specific goal is (i.e. what decision is being taken, what topic is being brainstormed or taught).
  3. Clearly communicate the amount of time expected to be needed to achieve the goal. People should know this before they come so they can manage the amount they talk and the level of detail to which they drill down by how much time is remaining. Then actually end on schedule. And end early if the one goal is achieved. Don’t run a meeting until nobody has anything left to say!
  4. It is tempting to blend meetings with multiple goals. It may be unavoidable sometimes. But it just might be more efficient to have one meeting for one goal. And then a separate meeting for a different goal.
  5. Invite the fewest people who need to be there. Really think about the roles and only invite people who have a clear role for the clear purpose. Meeting efficiency decays exponentially with number of participants.

DURING THE MEETING (GOOD RUNNING THE MEETING):

  1. Whether you’re trying to take a decision or brainstorm, the evidence is overwhelming that a better outcome occurs when the speaking time is more evenly spread out across participants. Data is clear that propensity to speak (and speak and speak …) has no correlation (not a negative correlation but not a positive correlation either) with insight into the problem. Leaders need to make sure some people speak less and others speak more than their natural tendencies. Which leads to …
  2. If it is a good meeting nobody will be on their computer. If everybody is on their computer cancel the meeting or the leader (#5) needs to step it up fast!

So that’s my advice on how to have an effective meeting. Consider it a costly endeavor. Don’t do it just because you can. Only do it if it will payback. Make sure you are meeting for a good reason.And if you do do it, invest what you need to do to make it payback. Have a clear leader who communicates why the meeting is happening and how long it will last and is efficient in who they invite. Then make sure everybody is contributing to the meeting.

What do you think? Anything I missed? Anything I suggested you disagree with?

9 thoughts on “What academics can learn from business III: good meeting culture

  1. Thanks! I shared this with my entire department in the hopes that some of these thoughts may be adopted [he types optimistically]. Ideas here are rather similar to a binder on effective meetings I once received from a relative working in industry, after he listened to me marvel at wasteful meetings and resulting stasis.

    • Good luck!

      Business doesn’t have perfect meetings, and of course there is variation across business, but in general business is so far ahead of academia that we would all do well to at least try and learn something! Its not like its super complicated. Mostly its a culture that gets developed.

  2. Thanks, Brian! This is a great post. And it mirrors a lot of what I’ve seen in government work (where I think meetings are also better run generally than a lot of academic meetings).

    Coming from the government side of things, I’d say there’s one category that you missed, that I find really benefits from a meeting: review. Unlike editing, I think reviewing actually works much better in person. Most academic reviews (except for grants, I think) generally take place via document, with no face-to-face interactions between the submitter and reviewer. Whereas policy docs, government research, and stock and environment assessments all generally include an in-person meeting for review.

    While it can get cumbersome with a lot of people present, it often results in a far more effective review process than written feedback; people’s concerns can get addressed quickly, you can hash out misunderstandings early, and if someone’s feedback doesn’t get included, at least they know why and that they were heard. It’s sort of related to your “make a decision” category, but it needs to target different people. I’ve found it works best if:
    1. The thing to review is shared well in advance, and it’s made clear that all reviewers are expected to go through it well in advance.
    2. Invitations to review are carefully targeted to people who are experts, and are able to give constructive feedback, even when negative.
    3. There’s a diversity of views represented.
    4. It is very carefully facilitated, including giving space for both negative and positive comments.

  3. This is very interesting. Any tips on achieving how #6 when the person running the meeting is junior and a senior participant is a known over-talker?

    • Good question. And ultimately this is why I used the word culture. While I tried to place a strong accountability on the leader, there are times (like you identify) where that is not totally reasonable. One hopes one gets to a place of expectation where everybody in the room shoots the overtalker an evil eye at some point (although many overtalkers may still remain oblivious).

      I think my best advice is not to tackle the overtalker directly (i.e. in a negative fashion of stopping them ) but approach this is in a positive fashion by taking the times you have the floor to emphasize that you want to hear from everybody and asking if anybody who hasn’t spoken has anything to add (or even gently asking them for their opinions if that doesn’t put them on the spot too much).

      But ultimately this is one of the flaws of academic meeting culture that needs to change culturally.

  4. I have two more things I like meetings for, each of which might fit into your categories. Tell me if you think they do:
    1. Accountability. There are many people who work best when they have deadlines, and for many of them/us, an in-person meeting is a great way to hold them accountable to these deadlines. It’s easy to say “sorry I haven’t done it” over email but hard to show up and say it to someone’s face.
    2. Some combination of mentoring and culture. As a graduate student, I work in independently a lot, and I find meetings useful even if they’re not for a particular purpose, because they get me “out of my head” and remind me that other people are also interested in the thing I’ve been working on on my own. For this reason, meetings with my committee members or advisors are actually particularly useful to me when I’m *not* troubleshooting a particular problem, but just working through a project generally. (As you mention though, these are definitely small meetings of two or three people, not a room full.)

    • Those both make sense to me.

      Although I think the accountability probably works better one-on-one (which I wasn’t thinking of as a meeting although it certianly would be valid to think of it that way).

      And RE your #2. I agree. This is why I insist that my advising meetings with grad students happen every week even if “there is nothing to talk about” – because that’s when either: a) I find out the student is going through a major life challenge not related to school, b) we just build trust, or c) we have the random undirected scientific conversations that lead to rally big ideas.

  5. Have you read Crucial Conversations? I just started reading it and think it will apply to academia, including meetings in academia. But I’m still early in the book!

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