Effective And Efficient Meetings
Attended any good meetings lately? Statistically, your answer is likely to be either ‘not particularly’, or an emphatic ‘no’.
Few activities in the school calendar generate as much eye-rolling and at times outright derision as ‘meetings’ while at the same time being accepted as an essential aspect of school life. In his ongoing inquiry into meetings, Steven Rogelberg (UNC Carolina) cites research (1) that suggests that up to 50% of meetings are viewed by those who attend as being not only non-productive but also frustrating. In addition, ineffective meetings can also generate what psychologists have labeled ‘meeting recovery syndrome (2)’: the time spent unwinding and reorienting after a frustrating meeting.
So, are bad meetings just an unavoidable and inevitable aspect of school life - like playground duty on a wet lunchtime? Or is there something principals and others can do to ensure that meetings are perceived by attendees as being both positive and purposeful? Research indicates there is.
To begin with, it is worth reflecting on what you know about the quality of your own meetings. If you are a typical leader you probably know very little beyond your own (often rosey) perceptions. Improving meetings begins by clearly understanding how others experience the meetings we run. While such an inquiry might be emotionally challenging, genuine feedback from meeting participants provides an insight into whether changes are needed, and where our priority actions might lie.
There are also a number of practical ways leaders can enhance the quality and productivity of their meetings. The suggestions below, drawn from researchers and practitioners, are all relatively simple but collectively have the potential to radically enhance meeting satisfaction.
- Be clear about why you are holding each meeting and communicate that clearly. Bob Pozen (Harvard Business School) states that there are only two reasons to meet face-to-face: (i) to discuss and openly debate important issues; clarify ideas; solve problems, negotiate; and (ii) to build social coherence, connection and co-dependence. Note that ‘communication’ is not cited as a reason. If you are calling meetings simply because you believe that teachers are ignoring their emails, check why that is happening and address the problem directly.
- Ensure a clear agenda is provided prior to the meeting but remember that of itself, an agenda does not automatically ensure a meeting will be productive or purposeful. Rogelberg recommends that the agenda is co-constructed whenever possible and that items on it be phrased as questions to be answered rather than as statements e.g. ‘What is the best way to allocate teacher aide resources in 2020?’ rather than simply ‘Teacher Aide allocations 2020’ . Doing this helps to confirm for you that your meeting has a clear purpose, and that each agenda item requires those present to engage. If your agenda can not be phrased as questions, check whether this is a meeting you need to hold.
- Be clear about the start and finish times - and adhere closely to the time allocated. One of the irritations regularly reported by meeting attendees is that time is not well used, and that too often meetings don’t start on time and then drift on. Effective time management is an active process, balancing the need for open discussion with the need for adherence to the agreed time constraints.
- Get the right people in the room by inviting those most closely involved in the issue. If FOMO (fear of missing out) is an issue for other staff members, simply make the agenda public, offer a blanket invitation and reassure everyone that minutes will be circulated for further feedback. Experience suggests that although everyone will feel invited (social issue addressed) they will not attend. If your meeting agenda includes items for whole staff consideration as well as items for discussion by a subset of staff, structure your agenda so that items relevant to the larger group are dealt with first, enabling those who are not directly involved to leave as the meeting progresses.
- Try shortening your meetings. Using your default calendar setting of 1 hour will almost certainly result in your meetings running for that length of time. Research and experience suggests that shortening your meeting by 5 to 10 minutes will keep everyone, including you, focused, resulting in a crisper, and yet equally effective meeting.
- Try alternative meeting formats. Try using standing meetings for small groups (if less than 10 minutes duration) or walking meetings for pairs and trios. Both approaches are useful in the right context and setting and provide a refreshing break from the group table or staff room format.
- Be a good host and set the tone. This can be achieved simply by a positive welcome, the provision of the occasional snack and by ensuring everyone in the meeting knows each other and their role - not always the case in a large school or when meeting with diverse community groups. Try to adopt a steward mindset - respect the time of others and call meetings only when meeting together will progress your issue or problem.
- Do the work in the meeting! Use a Google Doc or similar to record, and share in real-time, meeting minutes including the decisions made and the actions required. Doing the work in the meeting is not only efficient, it also ensures that there is clear agreement about next steps and who is responsible.
(1) Rogelberg, S. The Science of Better Meetings. Dow Jones & Co. Inc. 2019
(2) Rubenstein, P. BBC Worklife, 2019
Further reading and viewing
Gallo, A. The Seven Imperatives to Keeping Meetings on Track, Harvard Business Review, 12/2013
Pozen, R. Managing Yourself: Extreme Productivity, Harvard Business Review, 5/2011
Rogelberg, S. The Surprising Science of Meetings, Oxford University Press, 2019
Rogelberg, S. The Surprising Science of Meetings : Talks at Google:
Rubinstein, P. BBC Worklife