Meetings – the ugly truth

“How do you feel about meetings at work?”

“They’re amazing, absolutely stunning. Incredibly productive, deeply satisfying and always a great use of time. I love ‘em, can’t wait for the next one!”

Okay, so the above conversation didn’t really take place. However, a quick search on the internet will produce a plethora of statistics and information regarding the ugly truth about meetings. Here’s just a few of them:

  • Middle managers spend over 38% of their time in meetings
  • Senior managers spend over 50% of their time in meetings
  • Meetings are unproductive – so say 67% of executives
  • 18% of an organizations collective time is spent in meetings (apparently, this figure has grown each year for the past 9 years)

The above are just random examples gleaned from a quick search but I do believe they are representative of the staggering waste of time, money and resources that is the result of unproductive, poorly managed meetings. This is most certainly reinforced by the frequent comments of clients, colleagues, friends and family.

Assuming we ‘need’ a meeting (the first rule of effective meetings being don’t have one unless it is necessary) why are they so often deemed as an unproductive waste of time, money and resources? Why are they so often characterized by frustration and dissatisfaction?

In my 25 years of researching and growing my understanding of individual and group thinking productivity, I have identified two fundamental elements that make the difference between success and failure. Perhaps somewhat obviously, these are 1. behaviors and 2. processes.

  1. Behaviours

The behavioral aspect of thinking falls into two camps, internal and external. The internal behaviors are concerned with what goes on in our own minds and are principally (but not exclusively) about focus and discipline. The external behaviors are those things that we have been historically exposed to or are currently exposed to that have an adverse impact on individual and group thinking productivity. Manifistation of this commonly includes (amongst many others):

  • Cynicism
  • Over dominance
  • Ridicule
  • Too much debate/argument/discussion
  • Lack of individual contribution

It is largely about the negative interactions that adversely effect thinking efficiency, productivity and motivation.

  1. Processes

The second fundamental element is concerned with the individual and group thinking processes that are applied and adhered to during meetings. There are a great number of proven systematic thinking tools and processes that can be applied to a variety of situations that will ensure high levels of productivity and successful outcomes. The applications include (again amongst many others):

  • Setting a clear and appropriate focus
  • Problem definition
  • Idea/concept generation
  • Value engineering
  • Cost reduction
  • Process improvement
  • Problem solving (including difficult and/or highly technical problems)
  • Selection and prioritization
  • Decision making

It is by combining the right behaviors with effective processes that we can conduct highly productive, efficient and satisfying meetings. Weakness in any area will lead to problems, as the following model illustrates.

 

processes-behaviours-matrix

 

It is possible to identify from the Behaviors + Processes Matrix why our meetings might be a struggle and zapping valuable time and resources (and adversely affecting employee motivation). The segments can be explained as follows.

Chaos (weak behaviors and weak processes)

The chaotic segment is where the individual and group behaviors and processes are weak. In the extreme, there is anarchy!

Chaos is often characterized by some, if not all, of the following:

  • Argument
  • Debate
  • Many voices (free for all) or one voice (domination)
  • Interrupting
  • Unproductive
  • Lack of contribution
  • Waste of time
  • Personal attacks
  • Hidden agendas
  • Ridicule
  • Unstructured
  • Lack of focus
  • Despair

Frustration (weak behaviors and strong processes)

Frustration is often born out of having a good understanding of thinking processes and tools but where the behaviors are still weak and preventing groups from getting on and applying what they know to be good sense.

Frustration is characterized pretty much the same as chaos.

Unproductive (well developed behaviors but weak processes)

The unproductive segment applies when the individual and group behaviors are well developed but the processes are weak. Consequently, the group is likely to work well together and have a nice ‘feel’. However, there are low levels of productivity driven by a lack of effective thinking tools and processes. This can also lead to frustration due to a lack of productivity and results.

The unproductive segment is characterized by:

  • Good listening
  • Not interrupting
  • Willingness to contribute
  • Being well prepared
  • Discussion
  • Justification
  • Debate

High performance (well developed behaviors and strong processes)

High performance is achieved through well-developed behaviors and the application of strong processes.

High performance is characterized by:

  • High levels of productivity
  • High quality output
  • High levels of satisfaction
  • Quality decisions
  • Everyone contributing
  • Great results

Occupying the middle ground is perhaps what could be considered as typical meetings. This is where some of the behaviors are constructive but there is still evidence of counter productive behaviors and where there is the application of some constructive thinking processes. In my experience, these types of meetings are fairly common but they do leave room for significant improvement and raised levels of productivity.

Typical meetings are often considered ‘good’ meetings, which is a shame and somewhat symbolic of the endemic culture.

Meetings seem to have become an embedded part of our business culture. The comments I frequently hear most certainly point to them being a huge drain on resources and often a significant barrier to people getting on with their day jobs. If meetings are necessary and we are to spend a significant proportion of our working lives attending them then perhaps considerably more emphasis should be placed upon making them more efficient, productive, satisfying and enjoyable.

If you decide to improve your meetings I very much hope the above will provide you with some understanding of where your efforts may be best placed.

 

About the author:– Tim Rusling runs Problem Engineering + Behavioral Science, a consultancy and training organization with a focus on making thinking as productive as possible. He works with organizations helping them to unleash the thinking capability of their employees. Working globally, he has helped clients generate high volumes of ideas and concepts, solve the toughest of problems and innovate. He is author of the book ‘Systematic Innovation’.

Contact details:

www.problem-engineering.com

tim@problem-engineering.com

t. +44 (0)7901 910645

 

 

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Win More Work Through Innovation

Clients want solutions that deliver as many benefits or as much value as possible, typically for the lowest cost (as many of us might often incorrectly believe, although this is a separate issue). Our ability to develop ideal solutions that offer benefits/value over and above those which are currently available elsewhere, may hold the key to winning more work.

This ties in well with our definition of innovation, which is:

‘Implementing new products, services, processes and systems that solve real problems and/or meet the requirements of customers and markets so that additional benefits are delivered above those that can already be realised. It is also applying new and existing technologies in ways that similarly deliver additional benefits’.

For this to happen effectively, it relies upon two key things. Our ability to:

  1. Really understand our clients, their business, problems, pressures, priorities, future plans etc.
  1. Generate high volumes of great ideas and concepts on demand that address a given focus based upon our accurate and complete understanding

Understanding Clients

I don’t suppose there is any real secret as to how to understand clients but in my experience this is rarely done as well as it could or should be. Sadly, people often genuinely believe that they are good at gaining a thorough understanding of clients, whereas the reality is this is often far from the truth.

But what impact does a heightened understanding of clients have on innovation? Hopefully the answer is obvious. If we develop a greater understanding of our clients (over and above that of our competitors) we can take this additional understanding into account when developing solutions. This creates a tremendous and real opportunity to differentiate by providing additional benefits/value over and above the solutions offered by our competitors.

Generating High Volumes of Ideas/Concepts

Innovation requires an ability to generate great ideas/concepts (fact!) and the better we are at being able to do this rapidly and with ease, the greater our innovations are likely to be.

In a recent study, the findings showed that 3 was the average number of concepts explored early in the design stage of projects while 92% of respondents agreed that they would benefit immensely by exploring more design alternatives during concept design (source: trends in concept design – PTC).

In order to generate more ideas/concepts on demand, in high volumes and with ease requires many things to be considered, these include:

  • Ensuring we have the time and discipline to do it
  • Careful and well-executed individual and group thinking ‘management’
  • The removal of any suppressants that limit our ability to generate ideas/concepts (of which there are potentially many)
  • The application of systematic tools and processes that enable the generating of ideas/concepts

It is by combining a heightened understanding of clients and an ability to generate high volumes of ideas/concepts that we create a wonderful opportunity to innovate and develop solutions that will deliver additional benefits/value over and above that which can be realised through any other alternative or potential solution.

Surely this will lead to winning more work.

Innovation and ‘temporary’ high performance teams

I was recently engaged by a client to run a series of workshops that brought together a dozen or so of the brightest of minds at the sharp end of the nuclear decommissioning industry. The purpose of the series of workshops was to challenge the current design for a new waste processing plant and to generate new, innovative ways to carry out the making safe of a substantial amount of highly toxic waste.

The first workshop involved a tour of the proposed facility, followed by a session to set the scene for the challenge team. During this initial session, a guest proposed his concern that the size of the team and the nature of the challenge would make it difficult for the group to become a High Performing Team (HPT). Based upon previous experience I had immediate misgivings and have pondered upon this for some time since. I now believe it is undoubtedly possible to create ‘temporary’ High Performance Teams that can quickly be up and running and upon reflection this accounts for a vast majority of the work that I currently undertake.

In 1965 it was Bruce Tuckman who first proposed the popular ‘Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing’ model. He maintained that these phases are all necessary and inevitable in order for the team to face up to challenges, tackle problems, find solutions, plan work and deliver results. All of which are required in the workshops that I run.

I actually wholly support Bruce Tuckman’s model and have worked with it with clients on numerous occasions. However, for the aforementioned challenge team, time constraints meant that there simply wasn’t time for the team to develop through the four stages. I would actually argue that for the purpose for which the team was created, it was not necessary for them to be a High Performance Team in the pure sense of the term. Their purpose was to come together on a number of occasions to think/work effectively and productively in order to develop some powerful ideas/concepts that would help solve some really tough challenges.

Albeit the challenge team would still have to face up to challenges, tackle problems, find solutions, plan work and deliver results.

The big question is how do you successfully manage to get an unfamiliar team to demonstrate the characteristics of a High Performance Team with ease and on demand? Broadly speaking there are three parts to the answer.

Firstly, the identification and buy in to the behavioral aspects that will enable this team to meet and think as efficiently and productively as possible is essential (most of these are common sense but often not common practice). By asking the team to identify the behaviors for themselves that will both help and hinder efficiency and productivity and making these explicit, buy in is typically easy to achieve and the adherence to these behaviors is easier to manage. The helping behaviors are acceptable and encouraged and the hindering behaviors are unacceptable and banned. Simple.

Secondly, the application of productive and efficient systematic approaches to thinking, idea generation and problem solving is equally essential.

Thirdly, the team needs to be well facilitated to keep thing on track and there is much to consider here. Amongst other things it is essential that the facilitator ensures:

  • There is a clear and inspirational vision for the team
  • Adherence to the behavioral aspects
  • A clear and understood focus at all times
  • The effective selection and application of systematic tools and processes to maximize idea/concept output and/or solutions to problems
  • Thinking is complimentary as opposed to adversarial
  • Everyone contributes
  • Decisions are by consensus
  • Roles and responsibilities are understood
  • The management of time
  • ALL output is captured
  • The effective selection and prioritisation of ideas/concepts and solutions

In my experience, by following the above guidelines it becomes easy for a team to display the characteristics of a High Performance Team, albeit on a temporary basis.

If you would like to find out more, please do get in touch.

Systematic Innovation – The Book

Book Cover

Systematic Innovation, my new book, is now published and will be available from next week.

The purpose of the book is to bring together in one step-by-step guide a powerful suite of systematic tools and processes that make innovation happen.

Based upon years of development and refinement, the systematic approaches have been successfully applied and have helped clients develop new products and services, solve tough and complex problems (often those of a highly technical nature) and innovate.

Innovation is a process.  It can be learnt and easily applied and this book will show you how.

The chapters include:

Behavioural Science – an exploration of the suppressants that restrict our ability to generate ideas and concepts, solve problems and innovate. These include individual and group thinking issues.

Leadership and management of innovation – explores the significance that effective leadership and management has on innovation. It will either encourage innovation and allow it to flourish or create an environment where it will wither on the vine.

Systematic innovation (the process) – a look at the innovation process from start to finish that if followed, guarantees success.

The innovation pipeline – this is a great framework for helping to manage your innovation flow. It is comprised of seven segments from IP-1 to IP-7, each representing a different set of core activities and can be populated by products and services at various stages of their development and lifecycle.

Problem or design definition – defining problems correctly is essential if we are to develop truly effective solutions. Similarly, if we are designing something, we need to be clear about what that something is before we make a start. In both scenarios it is also important to understand peripheral information such as context, constraints, barriers etc. The book explores all the above and more.

Systematic thinking tools and processes – this provides a wide and varied collection of systematic thinking tools and processes that when applied enable the generation of high volumes of ideas, concepts and solutions.

Selection and prioritisation – this includes my favoured and most commonly applied approaches to selection and prioritisation of ideas and solutions.

Implementation – approaches to ensure that we successfully implement our chosen ideas and solutions.

Measure, monitor, review and feedback – it is essential that we know how we are doing and this chapter is all about what and how to effectively measure, monitor, review and feedback (MMRF).

Systematic approaches (quick guides) – these are a handy reference to remind you of the key steps to the systematic approaches.

Innovation is not just about developing new products and technologies, we can benefit from innovation in just about everything we do and the systematic approaches described in the book have been applied to many different focusses.

These powerful approaches will enable you to:

  • Generate high volumes of ideas and concepts on demand
  • Solve the toughest of problems
  • Innovate
  • Manage individual and group thinking
  • Make meetings more productive
  • Lead and manage ‘innovation’
  • Develop new products and services
  • Improve processes
  • Engineer value
  • Select and prioritise your best ideas and concepts

Systematic Innovation will soon be available through Amazon but if you are interested in receiving a copy straight away, please do contact me and I’ll make the necessary arrangements.

The Wisdom of Crowds

I was fascinated to recently learn of Francis Galton’s ‘Vox Populi’, an article he wrote in 1907 based upon his observations of a competition at a farmers fair in Plymouth the previous year.

The competition involved participants guessing the weight of a particular ox by entering the weight on a purchased ticket for the chance to win a prize. Some 787 people entered and Galton was sufficiently intrigued by the variety of guesses that he collected up all the tickets after the competition and analysed the results. His statistical analysis makes fascinating reading but in my mind one fact stands out in particular.

The average of all the guesses was not only closer than any single guess but was remarkably only 1lb short of the 1198 lbs that the ox weighed. Given the breadth of the distribution of guesses this really is quite fascinating.

The exercise was recently replicated, albeit with fewer entrants and the same results were observed. The average guess being closer than any single guess and on this occasion the average being 7 kilos way from the actual weight of 584 kilos. The range of guesses in this second exercise was between 200 and 1400 kilos and yet collectively the group’s average was still more accurate than any other guess (including those of expert farmers).

For me, this begs the question as to whether we sufficiently capitalise upon the wisdom of crowds in the workplace. Whilst I am acutely aware of the beneficial effect of group synergy when generating ideas and concepts, I am convinced the effects can harnessed in other ways.

I would love to hear your comments on the above and if you would be interested in taking part in some form of research to determine the potential benefits of the wisdom of crowds, do please get in touch.

The advantages of complimentary group thinking

Brainstorming is a curious term. When ideas are required or a topic needs exploring more often than not it is brainstorming that is called for. Gather a group of interested parties together in a room and let a jolly good brainstorming session commence.

I have witnessed many brainstorming sessions and have had frequent opportunities to discuss other people’s views on the subject. What is apparent is the term brainstorming often describes these sessions all too well. Use your brains and create a storm.

Through observation and dialogue, it is clear there is often the manifestation of undesirable characteristics that occur with traditional brainstorming. Characteristics that certainly work against group thinking being as productive as it might otherwise be.

Much of this can be attributed to the adversarial nature of thinking. There is without doubt a tendency to think ‘against’ one another.

For example, one person tables an idea and the immediate reaction is for someone else to challenge it. ‘That won’t work’, ‘we can’t do that here’, ‘but if we did that, then…’ all of which are likely to lead to debate, argument and defensiveness (amongst other things) which all make a significant contribution to a lack of productive thinking.

What has been proven time and time again is that productive group thinking is massively enhanced when everyone is thinking ‘the same way at the same time’.

It follows then that the role of the facilitator or leader in a meeting should include that of managing the groups thinking. The type of thinking will be dependent upon what is required and what makes sense at a particular moment in time.

If ideas are required, then everyone should be entirely focussed on this. If you are looking to identify the potential strength or weakness of an idea, then they should be focussed on one of these.

By systematically exploring a subject in a logical and sequential manner where everyone is focussed in this way, the need for debate, argument or defensiveness is eliminated enabling all participants to be 100% focussed on the task at hand without distraction. This in turn leads to a significant increase in thinking productivity.

Most people will have heard of Edward deBono’s ‘Six Thinking Hats’ which is loosely based upon the above principles. The premise being that you can put hats on and take them off with the greatest of ease and similarly switch thinking on demand (each hat representing a different type of thinking).

If you would like to find out more about maximising group thinking and related subjects, do get in touch.

The importance of having a direction for our thinking

Whenever we are thinking, either as an individual or as a group it is vital that we have a direction or focus for our thinking effort or it is unlikely to achieve a desired outcome. Our thinking direction can either be on an extremely narrow front or an incredibly broad (or even vague) one.

I refer to this as the focal spectrum.

On one end of the spectrum the focus is extremely tight, very specific and highly influenced. On the other end of the spectrum the focus is very wide, non specific and with little to no influence which opens up our thinking to a large number of potential avenues.

Where our thinking direction is on the focal spectrum really does not matter providing it is appropriate for the task at hand and serves our purpose.

An alternative way to imagine this is as a thinking ‘funnel’. The top of the funnel is broad and offers a wide freedom of thought which can include a number of thinking areas and as we go down the funnel these thinking areas become fewer. The bottom of the funnel is clearly very narrow and therefore considerably more focused, restricting the breadth of thinking freedom to just one specific focus.

An example of a very tight direction for our thinking might be “We need ideas on promoting product ‘x’ into market ‘y’ given the presence of competitor ‘a’ and the following strengths and weaknesses of their offering”. The ideas that will be forthcoming here should be very specific and address the explicit direction laid down.

Whereas an example of where the direction is wide could include “We need ideas on customers”. The thinking here is barely influenced other than the focus being on customers but the ideas that are forthcoming could include just about anything on the subject. Improving service, delivery, retention, product offering, growing, reducing, shifting the mix, new, existing, markets or absolutely anything that is related to customers.

The most important thing is that when we are going to make the effort to generate ideas and be creative that the focus is clear. In a group thinking situation this is all the more important so that the thinking collateral is relevant to the task and the needs of the session. It is the role of the facilitator to ensure that direction or focus is clear and understood before the participants engage their brains.

Switching direction

The beauty of having a focus is that you can switch direction as easily as ‘clicking your fingers’ if that is what is required. During a thinking session one or some of the ideas may make it apparently clear and obvious that it would be beneficial to go down an alternative route or seek options or alternatives on a particular idea that has been generated. You can simply stop the session, set up your new focus and start the session again.

This can be particularly useful if you have an established creative culture and the needs of the business change over time. You can switch the thinking focus of the entire organisation overnight, ensuring that you are maximising the creative output of the organisation in line with its current needs.