July 08, 2010

“Good” Meetings

new sally By Sally Raskoff

I recently blogged about frustrating meetings. I usually prefer to focus on the positive, so I am following up with a blog about “good” meetings. To me, a non-frustrating meeting would be one in which the meeting leaders address the reasons for calling the meeting in an effective and efficient manner.

What makes an efficient meeting possible? How can sociology help us better understand what makes meetings effective?

  1. To hold a meeting is to gather people together outside of their typical realm of activity. The meeting should have some relevant focus and purpose whether it is discussing issues or making decisions.
  2. Effectiveness has to do with implementing decisions. Actions need to come from the decisions made, and the discussion should have some impact on what goes on outside the meeting.
  3. Efficiency is different from effectiveness. It means having clear objectives and getting things done with as little “noise” as possible. We are efficient if we deal with what is before us rather than distracting the task at hand with other issues.
  4. The social context is important. If people know their social roles, they are more likely to act accordingly to do as others would expect. If everyone shares the meaning of the meeting itself and knows the symbols that are used within, communication is easier. If all key players are present, that can support efficiency since all those with something to say or do are involved in the process.
  5. Social norms exist in this microcosm. Clarity about the rules of the meeting-- in terms of behavior and process-- are crucial to having a good meeting. If everyone knows how to behave, those social norms ensure that people will bring appropriate and expected actions into the room.

Many meetings even come with pre-existing formal rules. Groups often use Robert’s Rules of Order in meetings to provide the basic guidelines for what happens and when. The rules include how to make a motion (suggest a decision or policy be made), how to discuss it (after the motion is made and seconded), and when to vote on it (after discussion). These rules also specify not to discuss other issues while discussing a motion – this effectively limits discussions to one issue at a time, which enhances efficiency and potential effectiveness.

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Many sociologists have discussed how organizations create rules and order, most notably Max Weber and Emile Durkheim. Organizations form bureaucracies to create a set of protocols for how the organization will operate. Durkheim discussed how the division of labor provides the role definitions so that people can know what they are to do and who has the authority to make decisions or change the rules. Weber wrote extensively on how bureaucratic organizations have hierarchical structures of offices and positions in which individuals have clear career paths. These provide a conduit for the distribution and use of power and authority within the tasks of the organization. Thus, if the boss calls a meeting, the workers show up and pay attention. If a co-worker calls a meeting, perhaps fewer people will show up or will take the process seriously.

Formal and informal networks operate within a bureaucratic structure and are also linked to power. The formal network, tied to the hierarchy, has clear connections with power and authority. The informal networks that develop over time due to proximity or personal ties can supplement or detract from the official uses of power within the organization. Thus if a co-worker who calls a meeting is connected to many other workers through the informal networks and if those other workers have a lot of respect for the person calling the meeting, that meeting may draw more people and participation than the one called by the boss!

While Weber’s ideal type of bureaucracy did point out the (potential) for efficiency and rationality of organizations, it is not appropriate to assume that bureaucratic structures are always effective. A lack of focus can get in the way of implementing the decisions made.

A recent meeting I participated in illustrates this well. We gathered together to deal with issues that are partly defined and controlled by a union-management contract, state law, and many other bureaucratic structures. We focused on specific tasks, using the process to discuss the information we had gathered. Those with the formal authority expressed their opinions, as did those with less formal authority. Decisions were made based on those discussions. At the end of the meeting, many felt the process was somewhat efficient and we had made progress on the tasks at hand.

However, we will truly know how effective this meeting was only in the future. Will any of those decisions be implemented or affect the day-to-day operations of the organization? In the days after the meeting, many informal conversations occurred where people speculated on those decisions and whether or not they will be implemented. Thus a meeting that feels “good” while it is taking place may or may not continue with that qualifier if the outcome of the meeting is for naught.

What other aspects of “good” meetings can you identify? What sociological concepts can help illuminate those aspects?

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Comments

Presumably, one way to track whether or not "good" meetings pay off down the line is to consistently follow up on them. Denote which meetings, or segments thereof, felt "good" (or "effective") in the moment, and then see how long it takes for those aspects to convert into positive actions.

Conversely, do "bad," inefficient or negative meetings convert any better or worse? I doubt they'd be an improvement, but it would certainly be ironic if the "good" meetings were proven to be the least effective in the long run.

I think your study is great, it reminds me of a interest group. You made it seem very organized.

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