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Decision Making

5 ways to avoid ineffective meetings

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Take a look at your inbox. Chances are there’s at least one long email thread in there, built out of questions, musings, last-minute details, and more questions — but no solid, actionable answers or decisions.

You’ve likely got several of those threads given the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Companies are not only learning how to adapt to unprecedented change at a much faster pace, they’re relying on the collaboration of a remote workforce to do it — and it’s not always a success.

“Crises tend to bring out the best and worst of an organization's culture,” said MIT Sloan professor. “What that tends to look like is that most people really step up. They work harder, they do more hours, they go the extra mile. But our ability to coordinate and adapt actually in some cases tends to go down.”

The result is firms are left with what Repenning calls “ineffective iteration,” an endless cycle of emails or some other type of “electronically mediated communication” with no resolution or clear direction.

How can you avoid that ineffectiveness? More meetings.

“When I'm doing very predictable, precise work, sometimes unforeseen circumstances show up and I need a forum or a meeting where I can go to get the answer,” Repenning said during an MIT Sloan Executive Education webinar. “Ideally we would cycle back and forth between precise work and collaborative work on a frequency that makes sense for the level of uncertainty that we're facing.”

Here are five ways to make those meetings count.

Match the frequency of meetings to the speed of change

If the world you work in is changing every day, then your leadership team needs to be meeting more often, Repenning said.

If your leadership team doesn’t increase meetings, it’ll be trying to process ambiguity through email and will just slow down the entire organization, he said.

Catalog issues that need to be resolved

Have a place online where all discussion and decision topics that need to be made can be viewed, organized, and prioritized. Collect all the issues that need to be addressed in advance of a meeting.

This digital repository — like Trello or iObeya — would be a place where someone could propose a meeting agenda item.

“Then the CEO or someone could decide whether that rose to the level that they needed to capture it in that particular meeting,” Repenning said.

Measure meeting productivity in decisions and problems  

Track how many decisions are made and problems are solved to measure the productivity of your interactions.

“If that answer is zero, you probably need to revisit the structure and the constitution of that meeting so you can make it a little bit more productive,” Repenning said. “Tracking the funnel of the decisions that you make particularly in crisis times can be super useful.”

Establish a trigger rule for escalating issues

Many meetings are poorly designed and not planned with purpose, Repenning said. Set a boundary or authority by which someone escalates an issue into a more collaborative meeting with a goal, he said.

For example, set a dollar amount for budget authority, and once that limit is reached, then  escalate the purchase to senior leadership.

“The big advantage of being very clear and precise about that trigger is it allows you a way to kind of dial up or dial down the number of issues that are escalated to the senior leadership team,” Repenning said.

Be clear on the timing between work cycles

Most jobs have a mix of work that cycles between responsibilities that are known, easy to plan, and can be done alone by the employee, and responsibilities that change and require collaboration and input from more than one person. The important thing is giving your employees some clarity on the timing of that cycle.

“If those escalation paths are unclear, then I'm more likely to pick up my phone and call you and I may well be interrupting you doing something else,” Repenning said. “You start to get this kind of ineffective iteration mode, which tends to slow things down.”

If a worker knows they have a daily meeting with their leadership team, off-cycle communication — especially via text or email — will drop, because the employee knows for certain when they’ll have the next opportunity to ask questions and collaborate with others.

Learn more about Business Process Design for Strategic Management