Send a meeting request and you can almost hear people groaning as they turn to dutifully enter the time in their calendars. Sitting in a conference room often serves to shorten attention spans and spur multitasking.
Web-based video meetings and conference calls only makes these behaviors worse. Sixty per cent of people on audio-only conference calls admitted to checking social media when they should have been listening to another attendee and another 6% admitted to dozing off, according to findings from cloud-based video conference company Blue Jeans Network. Then there’s always the chatty participant who can run their mouth and lead the entire discussion astray. Or worse, the attendees who don’t speak up at all because they don’t want to be criticized or fear the repercussions of disagreeing with their boss.
Despite these challenges, we spend as much as half our days in meetings, according to the same research. Yet, meetings are often the are the best vehicle for bringing people together to strategize and brainstorm. And while there’s a wealth of about making meetings more productive, a new a platform is promising to fix the things that people hate most about meetings.
Attentiv, which has just launched out of beta and has already signed up clients such as Ernst & Young, tackles everything from setting an agenda, to assigning action items, taking notes and offering a channel for anonymous communication. This feature, cofounder Daniel Russell says, is akin to Memo’s anonymous interoffice messaging system and works in real-time to gather feedback.
Russell argues that using a real-time stream, Attentiv helps the best ideas rise to the top. “It saves time by allowing everyone in the meeting to anonymously answer questions simultaneously, instead of going around the room one-by-one,” he says, which can waste time and lead to biased responses. “By getting everyone’s honest input, and not just the extroverts’ or managers’ input, you end up with more informed decisions and results in your meetings,” Russell says.
Given what we know about distractions during meetings, it sounds like this could be a tad disruptive to the proceedings. And that is exactly the point. “It’s time for meetings to evolve,” Russell maintains. He cites a variety of findings that indicate that meeting can often be useless and can waste up to $37 billion per year.
Getting things done, says Russell, is thwarted by groupthink, shyness, fear, yes-men, extroverts, and dominating managers. He believes the platform enables people to have fewer, shorter meetings and focus on what is important.
Designed with in-person meetings in mind, Attentiv offers participants a dashboard to take notes, follow the agenda, tag action items etc. The “Discussion Stream” is like a chat where updates and answers are shared. When a question is asked, a box pops up and the rest of the screen darkens until it’s answered. “We find that this keeps meeting participants on track and helps the group stay on agenda,” says Russell.
But what about the barrier of tethering people to their devices during an in-person meeting? Russell claims that most people are on their devices in meetings already, but admits that he and his cofounders debated whether to have Attentiv users’ screens lock in order to avoid the temptation of flipping over to Facebook or checking email. “People are often asked to look at an attachment or a competitor’s website during meetings, or they prefer to take notes on Evernote, so we didn’t want to lock them out of that,” he explains.
What they did build in is a counter that lets the meeting organizer know when the entire group has posted an answer to the question they posed. In effort to retain anonymity, the counter builds in time to let everyone answer first, so the organizer won’t be able to tell who posted the last answer.
Extroverts can’t dominate the stream because the organizer can limit each participant to one response. Introverts get a chance to get their ideas on the table without cutting into the vocal conversation, he points out.
As for shifting the group dynamic from talking to typing, Russell admits it is hard to get used to at first. He’s found from early users and his own experiments with the platform that it helps when the organizer poses the question and then adds context or other information while everyone is typing their replies.
“It is difficult to keep people’s attention 100% of the time,” Russell says, “even in the movies. And let’s face it, meetings are boring.” Asking a question that requires an attendee to take action to answer can break eye contact with the presenter, but it also forces them to pay attention while they reply, he says.
Acknowledging that a group dynamic changes when everyone is looking at their screens rather than at each other, he asks, “Are you worried about them paying attention to the presenter or are you worried about them paying attention to the purpose of the meeting?” Even if they are not making eye contact with anyone, Russell argues that they have to be engaged because they are required to respond to questions posed by the presenter and therefore still focused on the purpose of the meeting. As for the silence that ensues when everyone is typing, Russell laughs. “The best teachers know there’s nothing like a good silence to answer a question,” he says, adding: “Don’t fear the pause.”
Attentiv is free to use for up to five monthly meetings that store up to 0.5 GB of data. After that the pricing model ranges between $35 and $90 per month.
Though he’s enthusiastic about the potential for Attentiv to change the way people behave in corporate meetings, Russell says it can be applied to all decision making that removes bottle necks to innovation. “That’s what we’re out to do,” he says. “Make meetings less about the talk and more about the decision.”