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Selling on Value

Get more from people, meetings and gatherings

By Bob Wiele

The dirty little secret is out about meetings and conferences – they could generate so much more value.

Collaboration and teamwork drive high-performing organizations everywhere. A study by Frost and Sullivan for Microsoft and Verizon showed that a high degree of collaboration can be more than twice as important as strategy in generating higher value, productivity, sales, innovation, customer satisfaction and profitability. Meetings and conferences can be prime spawning grounds for creative and productive collaboration. Value can be measured by different metrics: new ideas, new contacts, personal and professional renewal, new solutions and input on pressing issues.

What’s the Cost of Poorly Designed Meetings?
Meetings are the biggest drain on productivity. They waste time, sap energy and cost money. One of our clients is an executive vice-president who wanted to know the real cost of the meetings in which her team members were involved: 130 professionals responsible for executing large, complex multi-million projects in her financial services organization. Their performance is measured by speed, collaboration and execution excellence. A lot of their key work is done in meetings. Here is the math on their group. In a workshop with her people, we started with two simple questions:

  • How many hours per week do you spend in meetings?
    A. 20 hours.
  • What per cent of meeting time is a waste of your time/talent?
    A. 50 per cent.

We then used our meeting cost calculator to show the math:

  • Total time per person per week in meetings – 20 hours;
  • Number of weeks worked per year – 47 weeks;
  • Total number of per person hours annually in meetings – 940 hours;
  • Hourly cost per person, all things considered – $125 per hour;
  •  Total number of people in the group – 130 people;
  • Total investment in 130 people’s time in meetings – $15.2 million.

Then, we factored in the 50 per cent of time and talent wasted in meetings that the participants identified. The waste and the opportunity for improvement – a staggering $7,600,000.

The bottom line? For 25 per cent of the year, with half of their time spent in meetings (and half of that considered a waste), these very bright, hard-working people admitted that they added no value to their organization. Sound outrageous? Not so much. Our surveys have consistently shown that meetings consume more time than ever and that 50 per cent or more of that time is seen to be unproductive by the people who go to them. Check it out for your organization. It doesn’t matter if you are a volunteer organization, a small or large business, government agency or educational institution.

Five Principles for High-Value Meetings
The key challenge is how best to optimize the talent you have in the time available and waste the least amount of time and money. Here are five key principles to turn meetings and conferences into high-yield events.

Capitalize on Diversity
People are different in three ways: the demographic differences of culture, age, gender; the knowledge and skill differences of coming from different experiences and educational backgrounds; and cognitive style differences in how they think and operate. Make sure you allocate time for information, time for idea generation and creativity and time for decision-making and making commitments.

Use a Common Language
We need better ways to help diverse people get on the same page and work more collaboratively on issues. We use a simple traffic light metaphor to guide people and teams to carry out the four primary types of high-performance thinking:

  • Go Green – means go and shift into a divergent thinking and creative mindset to generate new ideas, options and alternatives;
  • Be Yellow – means slow down and shift into a mindset to understand what is happening; look around, listen, analyze and seek to understand issues, information and people;\
  • Do Red – means shift into a convergent decision-making mindset to argue, debate and come to conclusions; and
  • Be White – means to open up and appreciate the positives and step up to the plate to initiate action.

Use Disciplined Processes to Guide Problem Solving
Use the same common language to map out smart-track processes for helping people think through problems and issues. A smart track is like a group GPS – a way to help groups of people stay in alignment to do the same type of thinking at the same time. A smart track is best used for collaborative meetings and each has these simple elements:

  • a colour-coded outcome – red (decision), yellow (planning or understanding), green (ideas) or white (initiatives);
  • a step-by-step process map for the group to follow to arrive at the outcome using the same colour-coded blocks as a process map; and
  • a set time allocated for each step of the process.

Apply the Rules of Engagement
The hard part with smart people is keeping them all doing the same type of thinking at the same time. Reduce waste of time and talent and set some simple guidelines to keep people on track whether generating ideas, analyzing information or making decisions.

Strive for Positivity
High-performing teams have a five-to-one ratio in speaking positively versus negatively with each other. Low performing teams spend more time in negativity, blaming and complaining, stalling their ability to get work done. Increase the ROI in your meetings and teams by changing the conversational focus to appreciation, what can be done with constructive dialogue, showing a genuine interest in seeking understanding to find a common ground with others when differences arise.

Ways to Increase the Value from All Your Meetings – Big and Small
The key to achieving real value is to shift the focus from speaker topics to include participant engagement. Real change happens when people engage their minds, hearts and spirits with others in tackling real issues. Collaboration emerges when people find fun and relevant ways to meet and connect with new people. In-house organizers win when they can find ways to inspire with speakers while extracting the best thinking from their people. Here are six ideas for you to consider.

Invite the Right People with the 75% Rule
Only invite people who are directly affected by and involved in at least 75% of the items on the agenda. No passengers and no spectators. Don’t waste people’s precious time and energy on things that don’t affect them or that they cannot effect.

Invest in Building Relationships and Social Capital
Smart people are your human capital. People want to connect. Create simple ways to build social capital by helping people to not just hang out with people they know but to forge relationships and develop informal norms, trust and bonds with new people. Invest in activities that help people meet and get to know each other. Integrate these activities into the conference or meeting. A failure to build social capital leads to consistent “forming and storming and not a whole lot of high performing.”

Use a Sabotage List to Set Positive Norms
This is a terrific tool to get teams working collaboratively together. Start by asking group members to write down a list of five behaviours that will sabotage any chances for successful productivity in the meeting. Ask the members to share their items. Have the group pick the seven most important ones. Post the list. Ask all members to take responsibility for not using any of the seven saboteurs and say “sabotage” if any member starts going off track.

Engage People by Using Lean Meeting Smart Tracks
A smart track is a simple three-to-five-step process that helps a group get on the same page by using a collaborative, timed-out thinking process to go from an issue to solutions. One of our clients used this simple three-step, 15-minute technique to harvest the best thinking of his 240 people at the conclusion of a one-day professional development conference. First, he listed six critical issues on which he wanted advice. Each table team of eight people selected one of the issues (five different groups worked on each issue). He used the three-step smart track as a disciplined process for each group to follow in thinking through the issue together to arrive at recommendations.

  • Step 1 – Go green and have all team members spend eight minutes to generate as many ideas and positive options as possible on how to deal with the issue;
  • Step 2 – Shift mental gears into yellow and spend four minutes bucketing and organizing the ideas into categories; and
  • Step 3 – Ask the group members to review the categories then shift into red to pick the two best solutions for dealing with the issue.

For a simple investment of 15 minutes, the leader harnessed the total intelligence of his 240 people and walked away with a set of 60 recommendations (10 per issue) on the challenges he faced.

I have always been amazed at how much of the focus of off-site conferences is on the venue, food, parties and Printspeakers when the real asset to the organization is the value that comes from harnessing the brain power of the people in the room. Make engaging and harvesting input a key focus of extracting value from your conference. Use one of your two-three hour sessions to do this. We developed the RIP IT – the Rapid Innovation Process for Inspired Teams. One of our clients came up with a new $7.5-million cost-reduction program. Another used it to map out a complete strategy for the next six months. A third used RIP IT to crack a set of six wicked corporate problems by engaging all 18 people in tackling the issues and crafting solutions. Here is how RIP IT works:

  1. A leader articulates a set of issues or challenges the organization is facing;
  2. Small groups each pick one of the issues and each group develops a “crux-of-the-problem” statement;
  3. Each group describes its problem statement and asks all the rest of the delegates to generate as many ideas as possible in four minutes by writing them down on cards;
  4. The same process is repeated for the other issue groups (keep it to five to seven issues);
  5. Each team gathers the cards or stickies on its issue and develops proposals and recommendations;
  6.  Groups report their recommendations and delegates vote on the spot;
  7. People are asked to sign up to be on initiative teams to drive implementation.

Net result: hundreds of ideas, a set of action proposals and one highly engaged and committed group of people.

Use the Get Smart Review at the End of Each Meeting
Make sure you get the most value from the event by learning what worked and what could be improved next time. Avoid simply relying on numbered rating questionnaires. Use these four open-ended questions to collect the most important information from your participants:

  1. One new understanding I acquired or learned;
  2. One best benefit of this meeting for me;
  3. One suggestion for improvement;
  4. One initiative I will take to my next meeting to be a better team member.

Turn your thinking around to find new value from a gathering of people. Real value emerges from people interacting in purposeful ways. Create the right conditions for people to connect, communicate and collaborate. Build in places, spaces and times for people to meet, connect and have conversations. Ensure more workshops and experiential activities. Allocate time and resources for your participants to build their own social capital. Smart organizations know that if they value their participants’ contributions as much as the speakers’ content, then they design their conferences and meetings differently. Make the move. Pilot and structure a process to extract value and contributions from all your people and take your meetings and gatherings to a whole new level.

Bob Wiele is president and founder of OneSmartWorld. His lifelong quest is in helping people, teams and enterprises, make positive change by learning how to think better and work smarter together.

Appeared in Speaking of Impact, Spring 2013 Edition

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