Effective Meetings in a Digital World

Transcript of a talk given to Siemens on the future of meetings

A video version of this talk can be found on the Inspirometer Digital Page

Good afternoon. I am Mike Clargo, and I am working here to help improve meeting effectiveness. This afternoon, I would like to share with you how digitalisation can make meetings the highlight of your working day, … through better processes, continuous improvement and transforming the culture around us.

A tall order in 15 minutes perhaps … but here goes. I also need to address from the outset that my view of meetings and yours may be slightly different.

When I use the word ‘meeting’, what sort of image does that conjure in your minds eye?

Meetings Noun DefMost of us tend to interpret the word meeting as a noun – when we think of ‘a meeting’ ; we see a group of people sat around a table talking.

But if you think about it, ‘meeting’ is actually a verb – a doing word, an activity, and the problem is that by interpreting it as a noun, we unconsciously fix its nature; we mentally constrain the way that meetings take place within their traditional patterns without really thinking about it – meetings just ‘are’. When we have a mixture of decisions to make and information to disseminate, we call a meeting, and much about ‘how’ it takes place is assumed and unquestioned.

Meetings Verb DefConversely, if we think about ‘meeting’ as a verb, then how we meet is more of a conscious choice. We are drawn to think more about what it is we want, and to think about the best way to achieve that. As a result, ‘sitting around a table and talking’ becomes just one of a multiplicity of options available to us.

When we default to a traditional view of meetings, we tend to think only as far as the decisions to be made, and the information to be disseminated.

Meeting tool templatesBut when we think of meetings as process, we come to realise that the only thing meetings actually impact is the mindset and resulting actions of those who participate in them. As a result, we become more conscious of the need for people to fully engage with the content if they are to be committed to implementing the decisions and acting on the information. And we better appreciate the dangers of not using methods that promote full participation and engagement.

Do we have a paradigm about meetings? I guess we can judge that best by our reaction to a meeting that operates totally differently, with post-its, and movement, and emotions. Are we inherently excited by that thought? … or is our immediate reaction somewhat negative? Paradigms are powerful things, all the more so because they often operate undetected at a subconscious level – and the battle for digitalisation is first and foremost the battle for mastery of our paradigms.

How so?

Well let us take for instance, our approach to virtual meetings!

Treaty of London 1604Digitalisation brings us huge potential for doing things differently and we can now meet over vast distances without leaving our desk. But when we look at how that potential has been implemented, we see that most of the effort has been in re-establishing our old model, despite all of its problems, and despite all of the advances that have taken place in the psychology of collaboration. We use the huge potential of the digital environment to recreate a less than satisfactory process that is effectively hundreds of years old.

7 M&P Tools ListWhereas, if we confront our paradigm and pause to question whether there might be another way, we could tap into the rich range of options that exist to collectively: share, update; create; analyse; decide; review; agree. There are literally hundreds of options available to us, … these seven alone are cited as the primary means by which Japan turned its industry around in the 1980s – but to how many of them are you regularly exposed?

Part of the issue of using these tools in the past has been the time and space they require to set up, but this restriction has been completely removed by the virtual environment. It is now a matter of seconds to paste one of these tools onto an infinite wall and engage people in concurrent participation – everyone contributing their ideas and insights in parallel, learning from each other, and flowing naturally toward consensus and commitment.

ConceptBoard ExampleFor instance this page on a virtual meeting board has the background presentations, activities and discussion points built in, so when the meeting focuses on exploring the pros and cons of something, people can submit their thoughts directly and a full picture can be achieved in seconds.

Interesting. Useful. But is it important enough to prioritise so that we, personally, do something different as a result?

Looking backwards, maybe not. But looking to the future, making this change today will prove essential to our future viability – and for two main reasons.

Meeting Time ConsumptionThe first is that, as our environment grows more complex and volatile, the meetings we hold to coordinate our responses consume an increasingly big proportion of our diaries, even more so as we progress in seniority, and sadly much of that time is currently wasted. The result not only impacts productivity, but also job satisfaction, mental health, engagement, creativity, diversity – all of the things we need to play an effective part (both individually and corporately) in the modern competitive landscape.

The second reason is related to this, but may be best reflected in this observation by Joe Kaeser: “We have understood that conglomerates of the old-fashioned kind have no future”. Basically, the limitations of traditional operating structures on individual expression and agility will render them uncompetitive in a future which needs more out of its people.

Rigid structures tend to focus on conformance and that creates a problem with the timescales required to respond to increasingly rapid changes in the market. Meetings within more structured entities tend to arise out of a control mindset, and as the pace of change quickens beyond what the structure can comfortably cope with, we see more and more of these symptoms.

There is of course still huge synergy and opportunity to be gained from working as part of a bigger group, but it will have to be realised differently, through a form of cohesion which better engages flexibility and individual expression. Relationships will be key, and meetings will be crucial to facilitating and deepening those relationships – but those meetings will need to be different, they will need to be a source of energy and inspiration; multiplying people’s potential rather than constraining it.

However, by talking about conglomerates and organisations, there is a risk that we de-personalise the reality. Conglomerates are actually groups of people and their behaviours … and those people are not everyone else, they are us, … you and me! So when we say conglomerates need to change what we are saying is that we need to change. And changing from one reality to another involves feeling weird and uncomfortable.

And the reality is, if we (not them, you and me!) are not feeling weird and uncomfortable then we are not actually changing.

Digital can help but it will not stop us feeling weird and uncomfortable. It will just make the results appear faster and give us a way of navigating through weird and uncomfortable. The fact is, we have to face weird and uncomfortable as part of our immediate future or we ourselves will remain in the past.

But how do we know if we are changing? How do we know if these tools are making a difference? How do we know if our meetings really are creating engagement, ownership and insight in its participants, even in parts of our organisation that may be remote from us?

The answer to that is the second great advantage of digitalisation.

Over the last 20 years, business processes have been transformed to a point where they are almost unrecognisable in terms of their performance and efficiency. In many cases, one person is now able to deliver outputs which previously required twenty. We know this because they have the data to prove it.

Meeting initiatives and impactConverseley, if we wish to understand how meeting performance has evolved over the same period, we have to look elsewhere. The exercise on the right was actually part of the virtual meeting board I showed earlier. It looked at the experience of people in regard to the number of meeting improvement initiatives they had experienced, and the growth in meeting effectiveness as a result.

But of course, that is not real data. In fact, most organisations would struggle to tell you how even many meetings take place, let alone what proportion of them met their objectives. All we know for sure is that the people who run meetings rate their effectiveness 100% higher than the people who attend them – which might be part of the problem. But the biggest problem is: sustainable process improvement requires data – and we don’t have it. Until digitalisation, measuring meeting performance has been … impractical.

Meeting feedback AppBut digitalistation has brought us plugins to analyse calendar data, apps to gather instant feedback, cloud-based solutions to process it all, and the tools to do this effortlessly for everyone.

By September, each of you will know how much time you spend in meetings and how effectively your meetings use your time to add value. And thanks to the benefits of Digitalisation, it will all happen pretty much in the background. Furthermore, Siemens UK&I will at last know how big and effective meetings are as an overall process

And people are currently being empowered by real-time data, analysis and simple solutions (including on-line guidance on the meeting tools we talked about earlier) to improve things for themselves. The potential of digitalisation for meeting improvement, will make the average meeting twice as effective as it is today. That means half as many meetings to achieve the same outcome – how much time would that give you back in your diary? And what could you use that time to do?

In summary. Digitalisation enables a future for meetings where process and improvement are an integral part of their effectiveness.

And increased meeting effectiveness will save time, reduce stress, and increase business performance. But it is important to stress that the impact of digitalisation on meetings is not just about productivity. The meeting tools it enables are about engagement and relationship as much as they are about speed. The meeting data it provides are about learning and insight rather than performance.  The future requires that each of us is inspired and empowered to be the best we can be, and that the relationships between us nurture and support us to collectively live up to our potential. Digitalisation provides the platform on which these things can happen.

Michael Curry, the bishop who gave the address at Harry and Meghan’s wedding, challenged 1.9Bn people to ‘Imagine business and commerce … when love is the way’ … inspiration, relationship, nurture, support – it would be difficult to find a more practical embodiment of Love. And we are at our very best when we are loved.

Does that suggestion bother you? Perhaps a bit? If so, now might be a good time to go looking for those pesky paradigms.

But if it excites you, even just a bit, you might like to continue this journey by tapping into some of the resources available on the inspirometer.com/digital page where you can find links which will enable you to further stretch your thinking and try out some of these things for yourself.