In an article published in the MIT Sloan Management Review, Steven Rogelberg, Cliff Scott, and John Kello analyzed how much time American workers spend in meetings and how valuable they find such meetings. According to their research, the average American worker spends six hours weekly in meetings. These same studies suggest that managers and senior managers spend far more, participating in as many as 23 hours of meetings per week.
There is limited research on how much time educators spend in meetings. There are some excellent analyses of how principals use their time. However, these tend to focus on the relative distribution of time across types of tasks (for example, how much time is spent in classrooms and on instructional leadership activities). Anecdotal experience suggests that central office and school administrators do spend considerable time in meetings. That, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad. However, there are reasons to be suspicious of the investments we are placing on meetings. Research from the business sector raises questions not just about the amount of time in meetings but also about the function and form of when we convene adults together. According to Rogelberg’s scholarship, 65% of senior managers surveyed reported that meetings keep them from completing work, and 71% described meetings as unproductive. More troubling, perhaps, is that a majority of those surveyed described meetings coming at “the expense of deep thinking” or “opportunities to bring the team closer together.”
It is lazy to label meetings as either bad or good. The world is not so simple. Some purposes are aided by assembling the right people at the right time in an optimal location. Other outcomes may be best accomplished in alternative ways. As architect Louis Sullivan taught us, “form follows function.”
There are numerous books and monographs on how to run an efficient meeting. I’ve discovered several that are useful, but many tend to focus on the technical components of running efficient meetings (starting on time, ending on time, eliminating distractions, etc.). I agree that these can impact the usefulness of a meeting, but launching a meeting promptly, silencing distracting phones, and getting folks out of the door on time does not guarantee powerful collective work. As one central office administrator noted in a cabinet meeting I recently observed, “Sometimes our commitment to efficiency in meetings has gotten in the way of doing the real work.”
Assembling professionals to accomplish a common task is expensive. Consider the cost of collective salaries expended in a given meeting. Beyond the material expenses, calculate the loss of morale, the erosion of faith, and the opportunity cost of everything else that could have happened during that time.
At Partners for Educational Leadership, we have spent a quarter century refining our approach to coaching leaders, teams, and organizations. The discipline of coaching offers some guidance on how we might think about making our meetings more productive. The literature on coaching regularly refers to a “coaching stance,” defined here as how a coach positions herself to a colleague, team, or phenomenon. The stance taken helps explain the coach’s desired behavior and mindset. While the precise definition of a “coaching stance” varies depending upon the author, it tends to connote a mindful and questioning pose, one that helps the client clarify and sharpen thinking while fostering the conditions for learning.
Designing meetings well goes beyond issues of efficiency. It demands attention to strategy, sometimes in the presence of incomplete information and complex human dynamics. Adopting a coaching stance as you design the meeting (or series of meetings) may be a helpful way to get started. At a minimum, it might help clarify and sharpen your thinking while fostering conditions for something powerful to emerge.
Below are some questions to launch the planning of your next meeting.
- What would success look like at the end of this meeting? An alternative but related question: What is the problem we are trying to solve with this meeting?
- What are the systemic forces that contribute to the relative success of your meetings?
- What conditions would have to be put in place to increase the probability that the meeting will achieve its outcomes?
- To what degree do the team members share a definition of the meeting’s success?
- What assumptions do you hold that inform the structures, processes, and facilitation of this meeting?
- What evidence could you gather during or after the meeting to test your design assumptions?
- What do you need from others for the meeting to achieve its purpose? Do they understand the contributions you are hoping they will provide?
- What capacities might the team (including yourself) need to develop to improve the productivity of meetings?
- Based upon experience, in what ways might this meeting not accomplish its purpose, and how might you proactively attend to these forces?
Partners for Educational Leadership