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How to run better meetings

A recent article in The Economist caught my attention. It made the claim that meetings take up more time in businesses than any other activity. And very often meetings leave participants dispirited because they fail to achieve anything. Most frameworks get kicked around in meetings and so the success of frameworks is dependent on the success of the meeting. The more we can learn about successful meetings, the greater our chance of achieving successful frameworks.

Fortunately, the article in The Economist went on to suggest how to run better meetings. Their model (read framework) for this was “12 good men and true” - in other words a jury. (Forgive the phrase in italics, it came from some ancient poem in 1635 when only men were allowed to be jurors). The point is that a jury is a meeting. The fact that these meetings have stayed part of our judicial system for more than 400 years implies that they are effective. So why is this and what can we learn from juries that can help our business meetings?

Clarity of purpose: The first point to note about a jury is that its purpose is very clear. "Are these people we are here to judge guilty or not?" This isn’t always the case in our business meetings. One meeting can beget another and members are seldom bold enough to say “what the heck are we doing here?”. So the number one thing to do is to state at the outset of the meeting why you are there and what you intend to achieve.

Achieve an outcome: Juries work because they have to. You are not allowed out of the jury meeting until a decision is made. This could be a bit extreme for business meetings but you get the point. “We are here in this meeting to achieve XYZ and that is what we will do before we all go home tonight”. It could sharpen the discussion.

Number of people: The next thing to think about is the size of the meeting. It seems that 12 people is a good maximum for a meeting. Adding more people would add more voices but not necessarily more ideas. As we know, if everyone is to have their say in a meeting it will take for ever if there are more than 12. Indeed, there are enough examples of juries struggling to arrive at an opinion after days of discussion. We don’t want that.

A cross section of ideas: The composition of the people in the meeting is important. Jurors are drawn from a pool of people that reflect the general public. In business it is good to have a cross-section of participants. If everyone called into the meeting has their mind made up because they are of a similar ilk, you could get a result but it may be the wrong one.

A good moderator: The leader of the jury is elected by the other jurors. This has its advantages. This person is not necessarily chosen by rank, rather because they look like they will make a good moderator. Bringing people together to arrive at a clear and single objective requires skill and tact and these qualities may not be present in the most senior person in the room.

Arm with facts: The final point to make about meetings is that people should feel safe in expressing their views. Juries get together for their deliberations only after they have heard all the facts. The meeting must give everyone the facts that are needed to arrive at a course of action. This might mean that someone is brought into the meeting to brief everyone on the situation before an outcome is determined.

I am sure that not all juries are perfect. Some will have domineering personalities. Some will have idiots whose views are crazy. Some will have the meek and the mild who are too frightened to speak their own mind. But, the learnings from the jury system are worth a try. If you can improve the quality of your meetings, it’s likely that your effectiveness in using frameworks will perk up.


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