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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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.

Innovations weakest link?

Our experience has been that for many organisations the weakest part of their product/service development and/or problem solving processes is the ability to generate sufficient volumes of quality ideas and concepts. This is potentially the result of the many individual, group and leadership behaviours that suppress our ability to generate ideas (see previous blogs).

This is supported by some research ‘Trends in Concept Design’ conducted by PTC (a leading provider of technology solutions) in which respondents were asked to quote the average number of design alternatives explored during the concept design stage when developing new products. The most frequent response was 3.

When asked to respond to the statement “We would benefit immensely by exploring more design alternatives during concept design”, 92% agreed.

This clearly highlights the need for more emphasis to be placed on the development of ideas and concepts earlier in the innovation process.

We also know from experience that the application of systematic thinking tools and processes deliver instant results in terms of increasing the number of quality ideas and concepts produced. To highlight this, a client recently found four workable solutions within three hours to a difficult technical problem that a team of eight engineers had been focussed on (and perplexed by) for six months by simply applying two of the numerous tools and processes that exist.

If successful systematic thinking tools and processes are easy to learn and apply, why are not more organisations focussed on their use?

As part of my on-going research into the critical success factors of innovation I would very much welcome any thoughts you may have on this.

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 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.

Thinking Suppressants

In relation to our ability to generate ideas, be creative and solve problems there are a number of suppressants that exist that can stifle this. Some of these are internal, in other words what goes on in our own mind and some are external, those factors that we are exposed to or applied to us that limit or suppress our ability. The purpose of this short article is to explore some of the more common internal suppressants.

Knowledge

Whilst knowledge is essential it can also become a major factor in limiting our ability to create ‘new’ ideas. We can easily become bound by our own pool of knowledge, restricting us to what we know and often the more ‘expert’ we become the greater the significance of this. Without meaning to single out a particular group or stereotype a profession, engineers can present a somewhat classic manifestation of this particular issue. After all, when faced with difficult technical problems they are paid to apply their knowledge of engineering principals and rules to solve them. However of course, the solutions they present are more often than not limited to their own knowledge and experience and there could easily be a multitude of other improved solutions that exist outside their current knowledge base.

Lack of time

A lack of time to generate ideas and be creative can be real but in my experience more often than not it is a perceived excuse rather than a reality (although it can be made worse by management pressures). Of course we are expected to be productive and to have our sleeves rolled up and often this encourages the need to be seen to be busy, this is often compounded when economic pressures are high and the need for job security is raised.

This is somewhat paradoxical. Whilst we indeed may be busy or are keen to be seen to be busy, taking the time out to think could easily lead to better ways of working, improved solutions to problems, higher quality work and faster ways to work, freeing up time and improving performance!

Hindsight

One of the issues regarding idea generation is that when we strike upon a really good idea it often appears ‘obvious’ and in hindsight we devalue it. This tendency to view good ideas as obvious leads us to convince ourselves that it has probably already been done before and I wonder just how many really good ideas have been generated but have fallen foul of this and therefore never made it to fruition.

Fear of ridicule

Ridicule can be a major problem and can significantly contribute towards the cessation of people putting forward their ideas. If in the past when we have put forward an idea it is ridiculed, we clearly become les and less inclined to put future ideas on the table in the future. This often manifests itself in meetings and group thinking sessions and clearly needs to be stamped out.

We often hear the phrase ‘there is no such thing as a bad idea’ and this notion should be actively encouraged. An idea may on the face of it appear ‘stupid’ but within it could be the seed of something great.

Not my job

Sometimes we simply do not see it as part of our role to generate ideas, be creative or solve problems we see our function as simply getting on and achieving our objectives which more often than not do not include generating ideas. It’s more about getting the job done, delivering objectives in line with managerial expectations, rather than being paid to think.

Don’t know how

The sad fact is that very few people have been taught or ‘trained’ to think in a way that will enable the generation of high volumes of new ideas on demand or in the art of innovation. Going back as far as my school days I struggle to recall being taught ‘how to think’ and being creative was pretty much left to the domain of the creative arts but even then I can’t remember being taught how to generate ideas or think creatively (maybe I wasn’t listening)!

Therefore, perhaps traditional education is in part to blame for our lack of knowledge regarding how to generate ideas, be creative and solve problems.

In addition to this, I have encountered very few clients that have invested in the training and development of thinking skills, although there are early signs that this may be changing as more organisations are waking up to the significant benefits that this has to offer.

Why bother (apathy)

Even when we put ideas forward, it can feel like they disappear into a black hole or worse still we see them being implemented and someone else taking the credit for them (often management). A lack of feedback, recognition and/or reward is a certain way to kill off idea generation.

If we go to the trouble to share an idea and hear nothing thereafter we are certainly less inclined to bother again in the future.

Appropriate feedback (even if the idea is not going to be implemented), recognition and perhaps reward are essential if we are to be encouraged to make a constant effort to generate useful ideas and be creative.

Premature critical thinking

There is a tendency for us to be prematurely critical of both our own ideas and the ideas of others. When we have an idea the risk is that we immediately search for the reasons why it won’t work or can’t be done, thus prematurely killing off what might be the seed of an excellent idea.

In a group thinking scenario someone might table an idea in a meeting and the first reaction is for people to similarly comment on why it won’t work or can’t be done. This can often be construed as negativity and faced with it on a frequent basis can feel like we are swimming against an insurmountable tide. This is another external suppressant.

A proportion of internal suppressants or the manifestation of them can be put down to poor management. Not exclusively perhaps but management certainly have a major part to play in ensuring that they are addressed.