The wasted talent in the meeting room

How learning about the brain could improve meetings

Go directly to the proposal for conducting meetings if you are in a hurry.

Meetings are a topic close to my heart. I have spent a large part of my professional career in them, and I must acknowledge that not all this time has been all that productive.

I started to keep an eye on other ways to merge people’s ideas ever since I realized the inescapable fact that a large part of my corporate life would be spent sitting in meeting rooms listening to people talk to each other.

Crowd-sourcing and futures markets

There have been experimental futures markets for many years now. The most famous is the one run by the University of Iowa, that has been much better than polls at predicting the outcome of the US presidential elections. This is the Economist back in 2000:

Academics at the University of Iowa set up the IEM in 1988 in order to help teach students about finance. The markets are not for futures in the classical sense—that is, promises to exchange some good or service at a fixed date and price. Rather, they are of the “cash-settled” variety. Consider the IEM’s “winner-takes-all” market for the American presidency. Each dollar invested with a central clearing-house, up to \$500 per participant, buys a bundle containing one future for every candidate. When a candidate wins, futures linked to him will pay \$1 each. As only one candidate can win, each bundle of four Bush-Gore-Nader-Buchanan futures is sure to be worth \$1. Prior to the election, investors can trade individual futures at any price for which they can find a counterparty, presumably reflecting what chance they think a candidate has of winning.

There are several factors that make it so accurate and interesting: people bet actual money on the outcome, so there’s a large incentive to think about it; the decisions of investors do not affect the outcome, unlike in the stock market; and the price reflects the independent judgment of investors.

Then came The Wisdom of Crowds1, James Surowiecki’s excellent account of the magic of combined independent human judgment.

A classic demonstration of group intelligence is the jelly-beans-in-the-jar experiment, in which invariably the group’s estimate is superior to the vast majority of the individual guesses. When finance professor Jack Treynor ran the experiment in his class with a jar that held 850 beans, the group estimate was 871. Only one of the fifty-six people in the class made a better guess.

But it turns out to be very hard to apply these ideas to practical pursuits in the corporate world. You cannot really run a futures market to figure out which of the potential investments you should pursue, because the people betting will also be deciding. You cannot do it to estimate the confidence that your organization has in meeting a schedule for the same reason.

Independent judgment

Enter Daniel Kahneman, and his wonderful Thinking, Fast and Slow. And yes, I realize that I keep pushing this book on my readers. As Salinger said in the dedication of Franny and Zooey, “As nearly as possible in the spirit of Matthew Salinger, age one, urging a luncheon companion to accept a cool lima bean”. It’s a book everybody should read, and the world will be a better place when the ideas it contains become commonplace2.

He tells us with some detail about how what’s immediately available to our brains —like what has been put there by a recent experience— has a very large impact on how we process new information and, crucially, what we decide. For example,

In an enduring classic of psychology, Solomon Asch presented descriptions of two people and asked for comments on their personality. What do you think of Alan and Ben?

Alan: intelligent-industrious-impulsive-critical-stubborn-envious

Ben: envious-stubborn-critical-impulsive-industrious-intelligent

If you are like most of us, you viewed Alan much more favorably than Ben. The initial traits in the list change the very meaning of the traits that appear later. The stubbornness of an intelligent person is seen as likely to be justified and may actually evoke respect, but intelligence in an envious and stubborn person makes him more dangerous. The halo effect is also an example of suppressed ambiguity: like the word bank, the adjective stubborn is ambiguous and will be interpreted in a way that makes it coherent with the context.

When this happens with something as trivial as the order in which you read a list of adjectives you can actually figure out that something fishy is going on; when it happens, as it does, when you and a group of peers sit down in a meeting room to decide on the prospects of a project it just feels natural.

Conducting meetings

Here’s Kahneman’s proposal for a simple way to make meetings more productive:

The principle of independent judgments (and decorrelated errors) has immediate applications for the conduct of meetings, an activity in which executives in organizations spend a great deal of their working days. A simple rule can help: before an issue is discussed, all members of the committee should be asked to write a very brief summary of their position. This procedure makes good use of the value of the diversity of knowledge and opinion in the group. The standard practice of open discussion gives too much weight to the opinions of those who speak early and assertively, causing others to line up behind them.

It looks trivial, but it would give an edge to an organization that adopted it. I would only add to it that the order of presentations should be random, and that nobody should be admitted to a meeting room without the write-up.

Some of the effects of a policy like this:

  • If everybody is to arrive to a meeting prepared for a discussion and with a written-down stance, required previous knowledge needs to have been shared. Therefore meetings would not be conducted just to present information. Information is much better shared by bothering to write it down —in prose, not in a powerpoint presentation— and letting recipients digest it.
  • The previous point has another good side effect: the documents written to prepare a meeting become a track record of the decisions made.
  • Everybody has a role, so everybody needs to actually think. We’ve all been in meetings where two or three guys discuss something while the other attendees check email looking professional, the underlying assumption being that they need to be there listening just in case something is said that forces them to chime in.
  • There would be less meetings, because they would become actual work for the organizer and for the participants. Actual work as in forcing yourself to carefully think through something, not to be confused with what you do when you are at work.

It’s not only a matter of productivity

If the only concern was productivity it would be easy to dismiss. People sitting behind their computers in the meeting room are doing something anyway, possibly even working in their own thing.

The real problem is that the whole point of having a bunch of smart people in a meeting room is —should be— to pick their brains, to take advantage of the diversity of experiences, knowledge, and points of view, and to let something that’s bigger than the parts emerge. If you are not doing this you are, most likely, just legitimizing one guy’s idea in a very expensive way. Possibly the wrong idea.



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Juan Reyero Barcelona, 2011-11-25


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