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.




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:

t. +44 (0)7901 910645




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.