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

 

 

Access the world’s knowledge of inventive principles

It is estimated that 99.7% of all problems have been solved somewhere and at some point in time. The solution may have been found to solve a similar problem in an unrelated industry on the other side of the globe and the solution may have been discovered many years ago. Nonetheless, it is extremely rare to encounter a problem where a solution has not already been developed.

The problem with this though, is that the task of researching and collating all this information is a massive one and probably too daunting to be seriously considered by most of us but how useful would it be to have access to all this knowledge especially when faced with really tough technical problems?

Those of you that are familiar with TRIZ (Geinrich Altschuller’s approach to inventive problem solving) will probably be aware that an easily accessible database of this knowledge already exists.

Altschuller defines the really tough technical problems that we face as either physical or technical contradictions.

A physical contradiction creates a conflict with the same parameters. For example, a coffee cup should be hot to keep the coffee inside hot but it should also be cold so that it can be comfortably held by the user. Here the same parameter ‘heat’ needs to be high and low, therefore a physical contradiction exists. Physical contradictions are solved using one of four separation principles by separating in time, in space, between parts and the whole or upon condition.

Technical contradictions on the other hand occur when different parameters are in conflict with each other. For example, the motor should run faster but at the same time it should not generate more heat and therefore the parameters of speed and temperature are in conflict. Technical contradictions are typically solved through compromise but Altschuller claims that problems should be solved without compromise. But how?

Altschuller spent much of his time analysing patents from all over the world in a bid to identify if there were any repeatable patterns that could assist with problem solving. This analysis (initially based upon approximately 50,000 patents) led him to identify just 40 inventive principles that successfully solve technical contradictions. Subsequently millions of patents have been analysed and the original 40 inventive principles remain the same.

Altschuller also found that there are 39 standard parameters which might conflict with one another in a system (speed and temperature being two of them). These 39 parameters can create 1482 possible conflicts.

By placing these parameters on a 39 x 39 matrix these 1482 conflicts become clear and it is possible to immediately identify which of the 40 inventive principles have been used before to solve these conflicts, putting the world’s knowledge of inventive principles at your fingertips.

Systematically solving physical and technical contradictions is just one of the many proven tools and processes that greatly assist with problem solving and innovation. If you would like more information on TRIZ and our other systematic approaches or if you would like to receive a copy of the contradiction matrix, I would love to hear from you.

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.

Transformational Leadership and Innovation

Transformational Leadership is widely considered as the most popular approach to leadership today. Not only popular but also widely regarded as the most effective.

There is an abundance of research evidence that clearly demonstrates that groups led by Transformational Leaders have higher levels of performance and satisfaction than other groups led by a different type of leader.

Transformational Leaders have positive expectations and believe that their followers can do their best. They inspire, empower and stimulate followers to exceed ‘normal’ levels of performance.

The concept of Transformational Leadership was initially introduced by James MacGregor Burns (leadership expert and presidential biographer) and later built upon by researcher Bernard Bass. Bass proposes that Transformational Leadership can be defined according to the impact it has on the followers of a Transformational Leader. It engenders the trust, respect and admiration of followers. Bass also suggests that there are four key components to Transformational Leadership.

The Four Components of Transformational Leadership

Idealised Influence – Transformational Leaders are a role model, they ‘walk the talk’. Followers trust and respect the leader, they emulate this and internalise his or her values and ideals. This in turn helps develop the follower’s leadership characteristics.

Inspirational Motivation – Transformational Leaders inspire and motivate followers. They have a clear vision and are able to articulate it in an inspirational way. Their behaviour provides real meaning and challenge to the work of their followers.

Intellectual Stimulation – Transformational Leaders have and demonstrate a genuine concern for the needs and feelings of followers. Their lines of communication are open and followers feel free and at ease to share ideas that are recognised. Concern is given to the individual development needs of followers.

Individual Consideration – Transformational Leaders solicit new and innovative approaches towards the performance of work and challenge followers to be innovative and creative. They encourage solutions to problems from followers.

Whilst Transformational Leadership is not only the most popular approach to leadership today but also widely regarded as the most effective, it is easy to see the clear link between Transformational Leadership and the need to successfully foster innovation, problem solving and creativity.

Transformational Leadership is about transforming the performance and future success of a business and as such requires new approaches, new ideas, solutions to problems and innovation. It is no surprise therefore, that these qualities feature heavily in the four components of Transformational Leadership and are actively encouraged and supported in followers by Transformational Leaders.

What does it take to become a Transformational Leader?

To set yourself on a path to become a Transformational Leader, the following guidelines should prove valuable.

  • Create a clear, inspirational and highly appealing vision for followers
  • Make the link between the vision and the strategies to attain it clear
  • Articulate the vision in an inspirational and passionate way (use colourful and emotive language)
  • Consistently demonstrate confidence and belief in the vision
  • Demonstrate with conviction your confidence in your follower’s ability to contribute towards and fulfil the vision
  • Model exemplary behaviours that reflect your total commitment to the vision and organisational values
  • Recognise the success of followers
  • Demonstrate a genuine interest in the needs and feelings of individual followers
  • Challenge followers to be innovative, creative and to find solutions to problems

By embracing the above you will be making a significant contribution to creating an innovative culture where great ideas can flourish and solutions to problems will be found.

Time and discipline – innovations best friends

I remember running a workshop some years ago for a group of engineers. The aim was to develop their ability to generate innovative ideas and concepts when developing solutions for clients.

The workshop was a resounding success and by breaking psychological inertia and introducing a small number of systematic thinking tools and processes, there was a remarkable increase in the numbers of ideas and concepts that they were able to produce.

The participants were wonderfully enthusiastic and highly motivated and the feedback at the end of the workshop reflected the success of the day. I drove home that evening with a smile a smile of satisfaction on my face believing I had made a real difference. That is after all, the one thing above all others that drives me to do what I do.

I also recall the follow up workshop that took place some weeks later to explore how things were going.

The feedback from the initial workshop remained extremely positive and it was clear that the training had hit the mark.

I then asked the participants to share their experiences of using the tools and processes that they had been introduced to. They looked at one another expectantly and then turned to me as their expressions fell blank other than slight signs of awkwardness and embarrassment.

‘I’ve not really had the opportunity’ was one reason put forward for the lack of application of the tools and processes. ‘I’ve just been too busy’ was another.

This was followed by pretty much unanimous agreement that these were the main barriers they had met to successfully implementing the work we had done.

Upon further exploration the truth of the matter was, there had been an abundance of opportunities and lack of time and opportunity had simply been excuses.

It occurred to me then that simply giving people new skills or tools and processes that they wholeheartedly embrace and value is simply not enough (in hindsight this was obvious).

Reasons for the lack of implementation can be attributed to a number of things. Insufficient management support, psychological inertia, lack of motivation being amongst them.

In my mind, these are more often than not also excuses. Contributing factors perhaps but still excuses. After all ‘you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. You can give people opportunities but you can’t make them think’.

If you want to be more innovative, find great solutions and generate great ideas and concepts there are two essential ingredients. Finding or creating time to do it and having the discipline to apply effective thinking tools and processes.

It really is as simple as that.

The value of rephrasing problems

Often when dealing with problems and attempting to identify potential solutions we are either trying to solve the wrong problem (or symptoms of the problem rather than the cause) or are viewing the problem as one dimensional.

The purpose of this brief article is to help us understand the value of rephrasing problems in order to develop a deeper, wider and better quality pool of potential solutions.

By rephrasing problems we are able to shift our view of the problem and change perspective which enables us to find solutions beyond a one dimensional view.

I was recently told a story which illustrates this rather well. It involved the presence of a substantial amount of asbestos in a nuclear power station and its necessary removal to safeguard the health and safety of the engineers working there.

The problem was how to remove the asbestos safely and without releasing any harmful particles into the atmosphere. The location of the asbestos and other environmental and physical factors made this a challenge for which a team of experts were assembled to find a solution.

Weeks went by, and then months as they continued to struggle, until a visitor was invited to take part in one of the sessions aimed at finding a solution.

It wasn’t too long before the visitor interrupted the meeting by asking “are you sure that you’re solving the right problem?” Quizzical eyes peered back and one individual asked what he meant by that.

“Surely, the problem is not about removing the asbestos but how to protect people from its harmful effect” he replied.

This rephrasing of the problem very quickly led to a solution. The asbestos was clad in protective sheeting and remains in that location to this day with the harm eliminated.

Here are another couple of examples of rephrasing a problem:

Problem 1:          I need a hammer to drive this nail in (solution = find a hammer)

Rephrased:         I need to drive this nail in (solutions = find anything that will drive the nail in)

Rephrased:         I need to join these two pieces of wood together (solutions = all the above and more!)

Problem 2:          We need a new tunnel to get cars across the river (solution = dig a tunnel)

Rephrased:         We need to get cars across the river (solutions = any method to get cars  across a river)

Rephrased:         We need to move the river (whoa!)

The rephrasing of the problem in the above examples, would potentially lead to very different solutions.

Do get in touch if you would like to know more.

Low cost, efficient and environmentally friendly solutions

When looking to solve problems (whatever their nature) it clearly makes sense to develop low cost, efficient and environmentally friendly solutions. The identification of readily available resources can greatly assist with this.

When we make a conscious effort to identify locally available resources surrounding a problem it is often surprising to discover the number and variety of resources that exist.

For example, if we were to identify locally available resources surrounding a standard piece of single core wire, beyond the obvious resources of the copper and insulating sleeve, we could also identify the unused space within the sleeve, the current running through the copper and the air surrounding the wire but why stop there? Other resources could include oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide etc. that make up the air. The properties of the wire are also resources such as flexibility, width, circumference, temperature, texture etc. All of which, depending upon the nature of the problem, may be able to make a contribution towards a solution.

A good example of the efficient use of resources is that of the evolvement of corrosion testing.

Traditionally, corrosion testing laboratories used platinum lined vessels in which a sample of the subject to be tested would be placed along with a volume of acid (platinum being highly resistant to the corrosive effect of acid).The sample would be weighed prior to being placed in the acid for a specified period of time after which it was weighed again and the rate of corrosion calculated.

The problem with this though, is that platinum is extremely expensive and most laboratories only had one vessel with which to conduct the tests. This in turn meant that testing could only be carried out sequentially, being both costly and slow.

By identifying the immediately available and obvious resources a solution can quickly be found.

The subject to be tested can itself become the vessel. Simply bore a hole, weigh the subject, fill it with acid for a specified period of time, re-weigh the subject and make the required calculation.

This solution was not only cost effective but also meant that testing could now take place simultaneously, radically speeding up the process.

Through the systematic identification and prioritisation of resources it is possible to find low cost, efficient and environmentally friendly solutions without the need to introduce increased complexity as illustrated above.

To find out more about the use of resources and other systematic approaches to problem solving, idea generation and innovation, do get in touch.