Arnie Skelton, Managing Director, Effective Training & Development Ltd

When Ofsted visit, they are looking for a productive, effective and efficient college. Though the focus is of course on teaching and learning, one of the areas where a considerable resource is allocated and consumed without always producing an appropriate benefit, is meetings.

This article offers some ideas for improving such an expensive, and often wasteful, resource.

If one person wastes one hour of their time, then that is one hour of waste.

If ten people attend a two-hour meeting without achieving anything, that is 20 hours of waste.

Opportunity cost is a term used to describe ‘the opportunity lost’ of investing in any activity – because time spent doing task A cannot be spent doing task B – or C, or D, and so on.

So the decision to invest in task 8 should be based on the benefit it produces, when compared to any other task. So if a meeting were to tie up ten people for two hours – the opportunity cost is twenty hours that could be spent elsewhere. So the value of the meeting should be at least equivalent to what those twenty hours could/should produce elsewhere.

So what is the opportunity cost of your meetings? And so does each meeting cover its opportunity costs?

Here’s a suggestion I’ve introduced into some organisations that is radically different from conventional formats – but works!

It’s called the ‘problems into solutions’ approach – PintoS for short – and is ideal if the meeting has problems or issues to discuss or resolve. It works like this.

Suppose the agenda has (say) 8 issues it wishes to discuss and, ideally, resolve. Put a blank flip chart paper up on the meeting room wall, one per issue (in this example, that would be 8 flip chart sheets). Put an issue heading on each sheet.

At the start of the meeting, explain each issue, so everyone is clear why it is an issue, and has a clear understanding of them.

Give everyone attending the meeting a set of post its. Then ask the meeting participants to offer their suggestions for each issue on the post it (one suggestion per post it) and stick the post its on the relevant issue flip chart. Participants can make as many suggestions as they want, and prioritise which issues they most want to contribute to. Remind them to write legibly, as others will need to read their post it notes….

The amount of time you allow for this will depend on the number and complexity of issues, but a rule of thumb is roughly one minute per issue, rounded to the nearest 5. So for 8 issues, I’d suggest 10 minutes.

Then call a quick refreshment break – 10 minutes – in which the meeting organiser and volunteers go round the flip charts, to remove duplicates, and group suggestions into themes where appropriate.

The next stage, after the break, is to give everyone sticky coloured dots. Each participant is then given a different flip chart as a starting point (to avoid overcrowding), and works their way clockwise round the flip charts, adding a sticky dot alongside any suggestion they support (so all dots are affirmative).

Then take the flip charts off the wall, and allocate each to sub-groups of the meeting, so they can summarise their flip chart back the group – ie each suggestion, with number of votes (dots) – in priority order.

These reports back are collated, so everyone can see what the ‘reports back’ are on each issue.

Then each issue can be debated, as informed by the suggestions and their scores. It makes most sense to debate suggestions that have a middle score, since the extremes already have the consensus of the group. For example, if the meeting has 10 participants, there is not much point in discussing suggestions that have scores of 0, 1, 2, 8, 9 or 10 – since there is already consensus on those ideas. Much better to discuss the ‘middle ground’ scores of 4 – 7.

This process has a number of real advantages:

  • It is quick: it allows lots of ideas to be generated and evaluated quickly, all at once, rather than in sequence. Typically an 8-issue agenda, as suggested here, will have the post its and dots sequences finished in 20 minutes
  • It is rich in suggestions: typically, each issue generates 2 ideas per person. So an 8-issue agenda, with 10 people at the meeting, will generate around 160 suggestions
  • It is democratic and provides for equal opportunity: everyone has an equal voice
  • It completely prevents the worst examples of meetings: waffle, dominant members, and lack of participation. No one person can dominate this process; those who find it difficult to speak up or contribute in meetings usually find this process gives them a voice; and all ideas on the post its have equal weight, since their source isn’t known
  • It’s colourful, and it gets people moving about – both can provide stimulation, engagement and encourage involvement
  • It clearly separates two key stages: idea generation, and idea evaluation
  • Ideas are still discussed, but the focus and basis of the discussion is determined by its preceding evaluation (the dots), rather than less analytical factors

For contrast, imagine how a typical meeting might fare:

  • How far through an 8-issue agenda would the meeting get in 20 minutes?
  • How many ideas would have been suggested?
  • How many members would have contributed?
  • Would ideas have been generated first, before discussion – or does each idea suggested tend to get discussed in the order suggested?
  • How long would a typical meeting take to discuss and decide on 8 items?

Most participants feel that most meetings don’t work, are not productive, and not looked forward to. Yet we tend to persist with running them the same way. If they aren’t working, surely it’s worth trying something new?

Arnie Skelton, Managing Director, Effective Training & Development Ltd

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