Most of the advice I see aimed at helping to reduce meeting overload – tips like “blockout quiet time”, “have an agenda” or “encourage shorter meetings” – are useful but don’t get at the core of the issue.
In Part 1 below, I offer up a useful framework for thinking about meetings in terms of information problems. In Part 2 I’ll explore the biases and barriers that get in the way of us effectively working on information problems.
Meetings exist to solve information problems. Simply put: moving information from one person’s head into another person’s head. Sometimes there is more than one head and the information needs to move between heads several times. And sometimes we want to move the information around heads until we arrive at better information.
There are several types of information problems (several ways we need to move information between heads):
- Update: I need information from you or we need information from each other to make sure we all have the same information and can act on it.
- Discussion: We need to discuss information that is in each others’ heads so we can all continue with our work in a way that achieves mutual goals.
- Decision: We need to make a decision in order to take action.
- Collaboration: We don’t have the answer and we will share and build on information until we get to it together.
- Connection: We want to understand more about each other to empathise.
Establishing what information problem we’re trying to solve at any given moment is crucial to understanding if a) it even needs to be a meeting and b) how to make the meeting effective and efficient.
We’ll also see that sometimes we’re trying to do two things at once and its best to split it out and specify what exactly we’re focusing on at each moment e.g. update then collaboration and then decision.
“I need information from you or we need information from each other to make sure we all have the same information.“
- A status update
- A presentation to the company
- A check-in
Updates form the foundation of other information problems. You can’t have a discussion or make an effective decision if you don’t all have the same information.
This type of information problem might be 1:1 where one person needs to give or get an update from one person; it could be X:1 where someone is looking to get an update from multiple people; it could be 1:X where everyone needs to be brought up to the same level of information by one person; or it could be X:X where everyone is updating everyone on their status.
Because we’re not mind-readers or perfect communicators sometimes follow-up questions are required seeking clarity. This is where updates can evolve into discussions. However the key difference between an update and a discussion is that the aim of an update is simply to move the information from one person’s head to another, not to question the information itself and whether the information can change. If you get the update right, it will help all other types of meetings be more efficient and effective.
- Updates can take up a lot time if done in person.
- Updates involving lots of people might mean that only a fraction of the meeting is useful for each individual person whilst the rest is irrelevant.
- Updates involving multiple people in person requires aligning diaries which might mean people have to wait several days to receive the information and act on it.
- Updates can end up taking up the bulk of a meeting that is designed for another purpose. You might need to make a decision but 90% of the meeting was spent updating.
- Move updates to asynchronous channels e.g. email, Slack, Google doc. Let people update themselves when they want and add comments to the doc if they want clarity.
- Create an agenda for the meeting and be clear on what part is the update, how long you have available for it and who is delivering it.
- Send the update as a pre-read and ensure that everyone has read it before the meeting so less time is taken updating.
- Try Amazon’s memo approach and block out time in every meeting for people to read the required information before the discussion/decision starts.
“We need to discuss information that is in each others’ heads so we can all continue with our work in a way that achieves mutual goals.“
- An account manager is talking with a creative/coder/strategist to understand when they can deliver the work. It is a discussion because although there is an ideal delivery date both can be flexible.
- A sales person is discussing with the finance team how much discount they can offer a customer. It is not simply an update because there is a bit of back-and-forth as the finance team might change their amount depending on potential lifetime value.
Discussions help teams achieve mutual goals. Discussions result in decisions which inform future updates. However when we make decisions without discussion we might inadvertently create consequences that impact someone else. Equally, if we fall into a habit of making decisions without discussion we end up coming across as authoritarian and don’t benefit from diversity of thought. To have effective discussions we need to be clear what it is we’re discussing and what the parameters are for the discussion.
- Discussions where people don’t have all the information are wasted time.
- Discussions which don’t result in decision can result in endless discussion.
- Not understanding the exact parameters of either side can sidetrack discussions.
- Too many people discussing can be confusing.
- As mentioned above, updates form the foundation of all other meetings. To have a fruitful discussion, think about how you are updating and, crucially here, how you’re allowing space for the other person to update you. After all, they have information in their head about their situation that you need to know.
- Establish the desired outcome and the pertinent parts of the discussion. What parameters are you working with and what are the likely consequences of each?
- Not all discussions need to happen in person. Consider whether the discussion is best done asynchronously (e.g. phone, Zoom, in-person). This requires you to be an excellent asynchronous communicator which is not easy!
“A decision needs to be made before I/we can all progress.“
- A Finance Director need to reach a decision on how to allocate budget.
- An individual needs to decide when to schedule a client meeting.
- A leadership team needs to arrive a consensus on the business priorities for the year ahead.
Decisions need to be made in order to take action and make progress. Okay, I know this is starting to sound overly simplistic so bear with me… Decisions might look like consensus, where multiple people need to arrive jointly at a decision. Or it might be an individual making a decision which requires information from someone else beforehand. In any case, it’s rare you’ll ever just make a decision on your own so a good decision comes from a good update and mostly likely a good discussion.
- Decisions requires everyone has the same level of information.
- Often in groups it is unclear who ultimately has authority to make the final decision.
- True consensus where everyone is jointly responsible for the decision can become a never-ending discussion that drags on.
- Disagreement over the final decision.
- Define roles and responsibilities using a model like RACI to determine who is ultimately responsible for the final decision. McKinsey have a similar model called DARE.
- Introduce a voting mechanic for true consensus to ensure the decision does not continually devolve into discussion.
- You don’t have to have agreement, but you want to avoid situations where you have involved someone in the decision-making process but they don’t feel heard. So be clear on how much time is allowed for discussion and ensure everyone feels heard before moving to the decision.
- Communicate the process for arriving at the decision, and the thinking behind the decision to people not involved in the process.
“We don’t have the answer and we will share and build on information until we get to it together.“
- Two creatives brainstorming a bunch of ideas.
- A department collaborating on ways to increase sense of belonging amongst the team.
- A team workshopping new business ideas to generate revenue.
‘Two heads are better than one’ as the saying goes. Collaboration helps us arrive at better ideas and solutions through diversity of thought. Collaborations tend to start wide as discussions and gradually funnel towards small decisions. However, Collaboration and Decision often get muddled together which can result in messy consequences. A lot can also get in the the way of effective collaboration which we’ll explore in part two, for now though we’re focusing on how to know when you’re genuinely collaborating.
We tend to use the word collaboration to describe something that was created by multiple people e.g. a presentation on Google Slides which had multiple contributors. However the constituent parts of this whole were most likely created by individual people given individual responsibilities. Collaboration in this framework refers specifically to multiple people working together on an information problem.
- Collaboration can move too quickly to a decision, stifling innovative thinking.
- We think we’re collaborating but actually we’re separately doing work and someone else is responsible for deciding what stays in.
- When lots of people are collaborating it can be difficult to make a decision on what to progress as each are jointly responsible.
- And if they’re not jointly responsible, people collaborating might get upset if someone else makes a decision that culls their ideas.
- Carve out time solely to collaborate and express that no decision is to be made during collaboration time.
- Be clear on who is responsible for making a decision following the collaboration on which ideas are progressed.
“We want to understand more about each other to empathise.”
- 121 manager meetings
- Team bonding
Connection is incredibly important in any work environment and is a forgotten thread of effective communication. We are all human after all and solving information problems together is easier when we are connected.
Ironically, it sounds incredibly un-empathetic to call this an ‘information problem’ but I feel it’s important to include here because often what actually gets in the way of empathy is confusing it with other information problems.
- Confusing connection with an update e.g. interpreting someone’s story about their bad day as an update for you to take action on.
- Confusing other information problems as the solution for connection e.g. offering advice on a decision, opening up a discussion.
- Not allowing enough time for connection.
- If it’s unclear whether it is a connection need, or you anticipated that it was a different need when you started the conversation, ask what they would like from you. Many people don’t necessarily know what they want so offer three options: to listen, to give advice, to give space.
- Ensure you have adequate time. If you have to run to another meeting, suggest another time before opening up the conversation. Cutting off connection is worse than not establishing connection.
- If you know it is a connection need, make sure you’ve connected to yourself and given yourself the empathy you need beforehand. It might be better to rearrange if you don’t feel you can be present for them.
- Worth repeating, ask before offering advice. As a golden rule, don’t offer advice without first asking if they’d like to receive it.
- Practise active listening and paraphrasing to keep the focus on them.
Quick tips for applying all this to meetings
- Most meetings have multiple information problems all mixed together. Split them out in the agenda alongside responsibilities and time allocated.
- Decide your team meeting culture regarding updates for the project. Will you always allow time at the start of meetings for updates or do you expect everyone to share a mandatory pre-read? Set this and enforce it. (It’s okay to be flexible and change depending on the need, but make sure it is clearly communicated.)
- Pick a responsibility-matrix model (e.g. RACI or DARE) and establish its use as part of your team culture.
- Determine beforehand who is responsible for making the decision and how a decision will be arrived at e.g. voting/consensus
In Part 2 we’ll explore the biases and barriers that get in the way of us effectively solving these information problems.
I would love your input to improve this piece. Does this model resonate with your world of work? Is there anything you would add or change?