By Roger Neill & Megan Hawthorn
It’s no secret that the vast majority of managers’ working time – some 75 percent – is spent in meetings. With customers. With suppliers. With bosses. With colleagues. With direct reports. As Synectics founder George Prince noted: “Life is a series of meetings. The challenge is to manage them effectively.”
Back in 1993 a Synectics survey of 750 respondents from 150 medium to large organisations in the United States showed that only 52 percent of time spent in meetings was seen as productive. Similarly, a meeting quality survey of 38,000 respondents from 200 countries, conducted by Microsoft in 2005, found that 66 percent of time spent in meetings was deemed wasted time.
Most managers come to dread meetings and find them a terrible waste of time; time they feel they could have spent on other, more fruitful activities. Often they come out of meetings with a feeling that nothing significant has been achieved.
Experience in working creatively with managers in every kind of organisation has shown that there are techniques, many of them radical, of handling meetings better so that they regularly produce fresh, actionable ideas.
One of the main reasons why meetings aren’t as successful as they should be is lack of clarity around roles and responsibilities. Traditionally, meetings are conducted by a chairperson who plays a dual role, both managing the mechanics of the meeting (such as assigning “airtime” to different participants and keeping time) and controlling the content.
In a Synectics-style meeting, the chairperson’s role is clearly split between the “problem-owner” who manages the content of the meeting – the issues and direction for decisions – and a facilitator, who manages the process. This allows the problem-owner to concentrate fully on directing the discussion, while the facilitator can extract maximum participation from all present without bias.
In both local and multinational companies key managers may be spread across different locations, even different parts of the globe. Bringing them together for important meetings is expensive and time-consuming. Technology has sought to keep pace, allowing meetings to be conducted through conference calls, video conferencing and computer networking.
Even the newest technology has its limitations. And when participants are not in the same room for a meeting, it has become even more challenging to manage the process effectively to gain maximum benefit out of it. With new technology, meetings have often become even worse.
There are a number of creative problem-solving software applications on the market. Our experience shows that participants can be significantly more productive. One example is Flying Table, group collaboration software that enables anytime, anyplace innovation on the web. Participants can log into a facilitated session through the Flying Table website.Ideas are typed in to the session and can be seen by everyone currently logged in. This enables people to input their ideas as they occur to them, without waiting for their “turn to speak” and without getting in each other’s way. Participants are not afraid to speak their minds since all inputs are anonymous.
Similarly, selection of intriguing ideas for further development is also anonymous, often leading to a richer selection, free from fear of having to just “go with the meeting flow”. During the meeting, managers can note connections, themes, ideas and implications while they are listening to participants. They are able to record their thinking more quickly and build off each other, allowing richer concepts in terms of possible solutions and action.
With continuous leaps in technology and rapid growth of the virtual world, it is not hard to imagine a near future filled with video-enabled PCs on every manager’s desk. However, one thing is not likely to change that much: managers will still spend a significant amount of their time in meetings.
The main difference will be that they will not need to leave their desks to take part. How they learn to manage the human side of that endless stream of electronically enhanced meetings will determine the value derived from them.
Roger Neill is managing partner for Synectics’ international business. Megan Hawthorn heads the New Zealand business as its partner in innovation. www.synecticsworld.com
© Copyright NZ Management magazine May 2006
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