The Solution to Unproductive Meetings: Anonymous Online Brainstorming

Empty chairs red and steel
Photo by ål nik on Unsplash

Meetings can be unproductive. That’s why more businesses are turning to software tools that streamline their discussions.

On average, traditional meetings are a waste of time. This is not news. In fact, meetings can collectively guzzle up hundreds of thousands of hours a year. A Harvard Business Review article reports that in one unnamed “large company”, a single weekly executive meeting sucks up 300,000 hours in a year. No, that’s not a typo. How is this possible? Because meetings require meetings (we’re looking at you, “preparative meetings” and “re-cap meetings”) – and each one entails preparation and scheduling. In other words, meetings cause a ripple effect of time wastage.

It’s no wonder another report by Harvard Business Review, finds that over 70% of the 182 senior managers surveyed claim meetings are unproductive, inefficient and keep employees from completing their work. Unproductivity, inefficiency and lack of issue-resolution are even more keenly felt in face-to-face meetings that require creative input from multiple people, such as brainstorming sessions. This is highly frustrating, especially when one considers that a successful brainstorming meeting can lead to productive discussions and innovative solutions.

So what are the culprits undermining the standard brainstorm and how do we overcome them? The answer may be simpler than you think. Briefly, the main issues plaguing our meetings can be boiled down to four categories: time and space constraintsagenda-settingproduction blocking (losing your train of thought while waiting your turn to speak), and fear of judgement(worrying what others think). These may seem like insurmountable obstacles, but in reality, each of them can be overcome with the right technology used in the right way.

Time/Space Constraints

So you’ve created a Doodle to set up possible meeting times for a team brainstorm on how to reduce company spending. You send it out and, surprise surprise, the time or location doesn’t suit everyone. You revise the options and send it out again. Then you meet with the CFO to discuss where the company is overspending (a meeting which required research from the CFO). Now more informed, you start preparing for the meeting with the team. Then you get an email: the location you chose for the meeting is double-booked. So you look for new one, book it and inform the team. 

How much time have you already spent on a meeting that hasn’t yet taken place?

You finally make it to the meeting room. Only 60% of those invited have been able to make it. Jocelyn forgot about her conference in Hong Kong, Matthieu’s son got sick at school, Andrea’s car is stuck in the snow again. Those people’s ideas aren’t going to be heard today – and even if Jocelyn joins you on Skype, the time difference means she’ll logging on for your lunchtime meeting at 2am, not a notoriously productive time for a meeting.

After the meeting you write up a report for Jocelyn, Matthieu and Andrea, filling them in on what they missed. Then you go about setting up a follow-up meeting with the hope that this time, everyone will be able to make it.

These kinds of scenarios are depressingly common. So much productive time (and money) is squandered on organising and sitting-in on half-attended meetings. And if you have to travel to get to that meeting, expenses only increase while your available time decreases. That’s why businesses are increasingly turning to software to streamline their meetings. Agile online discussion tools like Innodirect eliminate time and space constraints, allowing you to participate in you team’s discussions wherever you are and whenever suits you.

Agenda

Time and space limitations aside, one major stumbling block of meetings, online or in-person, is lack of agenda. Not having an agenda for a meeting is like wondering into Costco with an empty belly and no grocery list. You’ll end up overspending on junk food… and you’ll forget to buy the toilet paper you came for.

You’d think it’s common sense to set an itinerary for a meeting, but according to a study conducted by Sharp Europe, a shocking 63% of meetings don’t have a planned agenda. And even if you are in the 37% that have written down discussion points, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll stick to the agenda or reach a conclusion (consider the “follow-up” meeting). Unresolved meetings lead to more meetings, which in turn may or may not be resolved. So how does one ensure that an agenda is created and followed? The simple answer is: with technological help.

Studies have shown that, when brainstorming in a group, individuals are more likely to stick to a task or an agenda when using an online Group Decision Support System (GDSS) that “de-individualises” them by rendering them anonymous. Innodirect takes this further. In addition to anonymising participants, it helps users set and stick to an agenda. It divides each discussion topic up into pointed questions aimed at reaching a resolution and helps keep team discussions on-track and solution-focused by manually validating and facilitating each message. Good points can be upvoted by participants, making the discussion easy to follow. At the end of a brainstorming session, Innodirect compiles a complete report on the discussion, featuring an analysis of the discussions’ evolution as well as highlighting keywords that have popped up.

Production Blocking

After effortlessly finding free parking downtown, you’ve all made it to the meeting five minutes early and you have the agenda in front of you. One of your colleagues proposes a great idea and you’ve thought of something that could boost it from a six to a ten. You wait politely for a pause in your colleague’s monologue. Thirty minutes later your moment to contribute arrives…. And you’ve forgotten what you were going to say.

This is called “production blocking”. 

According to an article for MIT Sloan Review, there are often one or two people who dominate a meeting. These are generally more outspoken or senior individuals. Their ideas are usually the ones a team ends up using because: 

a. no one else has been able to fit a word in edgeways, so no other ideas are brought to the forefront and,

b. few people want to risk conflict by contradicting them. 

This problem can be circumnavigated by online brainstorming tools that encourage individual expression and enforce anonymity in a secure and supervised space. In an online discussion where messages are monitored and validated, participants can express their ideas as they form without fear of being intimidated or trolled. Moreover, the anonymity aspect encourages otherwise shy or silent members to voice their opinions – which may be radically creative and unique compared to the familiar opinions of the key speakers. Online meetings also have the added benefit of being able to accommodate more people, meaning a higher quantity and quality of innovative ideas can be produced. 

Fear of Judgement

So you eventually get a chance to fit a word in, but all of a sudden you freeze up. What if the brilliant idea in my head sounds like pure foolishness when voiced aloud? What if Susan thinks I’m contradicting her, again? What if this leads to a poor evaluation from my boss? 

In psychology, this internal conflict is called “evaluation apprehension”.

In the same  MIT Sloan Review article, the authors describe evaluation apprehension as referring to “our anxiety about what others will think of us if we say what we think”. For fear of being categorised as “odd”, we censor ourselves by not sharing our ideas and we generally end up going along with the group, even if we don’t entirely agree with it. This is called “groupthink” and it can lead to even more biases, such as “projection bias” (presuming that others think the way you do) and “false consensus effect” (wrongly assuming everyone shares your beliefs and opinions). Thesebiases cause countless brainstorming sessions to fall short of reaching their full potential. 

Although evaluation apprehension is more introspective, the issue of what people think of you spills over into its mirror image: what you think of others. Even if we decide we don’t care what others think of us, it’s almost impossible to filter out all of our cognitive biases– we just can’t fully escape the irrational assumptions we make about others before they even open their mouths. 

So how do we look past these internal and external biases?

The solution can be found in, you guessed it, anonymous online brainstorming. According to a Harvard Business Review article on Why Brainstorming Works Better Online, in order to achieve actual success in a brainstorming meeting, it’s necessary to  make the move to a virtual platform, preferably one that strips away identity. In this way, ideas aren’t attributed to any one specific person, but rather they are objectively judged solely on the basis of merit.

Online and Upwards

From reluctance to downright inability to voice opinions, it’s no wonder traditional, in-person brainstorm meetings have been found to “actually hinder the number of ideas generated.” Inefficiency is even further compounded by the constant constraints on time and space and the failure to set (and stick to) agendas. It isn’t surprising, then, that smart businesses are turning to new online solutions to overcome the ineffectiveness of outdated professional methods.

Online tools such as Innodirect liberate meetings from the restrictions that render them “a waste of time” while retaining and even enhancing their positive aspects – namely encouraging active participation, emboldening those who don’t or won’t speak up to voice their opinions and inspiring larger quantities of more creative, more innovative, more insightful ideas and solutions.

Are you interested in making your meetings more productive?



By Kirsten Sokolovski, Innodirect Team

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