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How effective are our meetings?

I was invited to two important meetings not long ago that were both held at exactly the same time. It was simply impossible for me to choose one meeting over the other so I decided to attend both meetings, one meeting on my iPad in one ear and the other with my laptop in the other ear. I told both meetings that I was taking part in two meetings and that I would freeze my screen when I was speaking at the other meeting.  It exceeded all expectations.

I felt that I had picked up the majority of what was said at both meetings. I was even able to take information about decisions that were made in one meeting with me to the other meeting. The people in the meetings I have spoken to said that, rather than getting the impression I was absent, they felt I was very much an active participant. One conclusion to draw from this is that the density of content at the meetings we hold is not so high that it prevents you from fully taking in what is happening at two meetings.

I have since spoken with many colleagues about my experiences and found that it is by no means uncommon for people to be involved in several meetings, even though not many of them admit this out loud. People have said that, for example, they have participated in a webinar or a course for which attendance is mandatory, while they were actually at a different meeting or were listening to a Master thesis presentation at the same time.

I have tried several different situations of parallel participation and I can draw several conclusions from my experiments.

  • It helps if the meetings you are involved in use PowerPoint to reinforce the presentation, as it is easier to keep track of where you are when what is being said is also supported by PowerPoint.
  • It helps if the meetings are in the same language.
  • It is hard to deal with incoming email during the course of a meeting when you are attending several meetings.
  • It is harder to be involved in several meetings if each meeting has a small number of participants.

I do not want to use this as an argument for participating in several meetings at the same time. But, that you can ask what role a meeting plays in the work we are doing, how well prepared and structured are such meetings? Is it a good meeting that is well planned if you can participate in several meetings at the same time? Are the right people at a meeting if there are so many participants that you do not have the opportunity to make that many contributions? Is the meeting primarily about communicating information that could just as easily be sent in writing?

In other words, could perhaps the fault lie less in the digital meeting tools and more in the way we use them?