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Two Items That Aren't On Your Meeting Agenda, But Should Be

A study of effective meetings finds that social time isn't wasted time, and asking what worked will quickly make things work better.

In this era of frequent testing, schools get a dizzying quantity of data about their students. Figuring out what to do with it, though, is more complicated than collecting it.

The Data Wise Project at Harvard University began with the goal of helping schools make better use of test results. Then, over the years, the researchers noticed something. Some schools were able to make a lot of progress, and some weren’t. Those that were making progress tended to structure their meetings in a certain way. So, says Kathy Boudett of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the team wanted to know, "What’s happening in those meetings that’s making such a huge difference in who can improve student learning and who can’t?"

They reviewed notes from hundreds of meetings over five years and, for a book Boudett cowrote called Meeting Wise, created a checklist on how to conduct an effective one. Some aspects of effective meetings are well-known (e.g., appoint a timekeeper). But here are two others the researchers found that might not be on your agenda.

Time For Chitchat

People are going to chat about their weekends and the latest news anyway. This is human nature. But one of two things tends to happen. Either the check-in time bleeds into the whole meeting, derailing other conversations, or somebody cuts it off right away with the admonition that no one has time for this. That early confrontation can set a bad tone for the whole meeting.

Instead, put five minutes at the start of the meeting for socializing and catching up. "When you put it on the agenda as something that has an end time, with a timekeeper who’s in charge of saying we’re done with that, it definitely keeps it bounded," says Boudett. But more importantly, getting to know your fellow meeting goers has an upside. "We saw that people might have a misconception that to have an efficient meeting, it needs to be all business," says Boudett, when in reality, good decisions require trusting each other.

As her colleague Meghan Lockwood puts it, "We’re asking people to open up their practices to one another, to push each other to improve, and that just can’t happen without trust." In other words, letting people share something about their lives "is an incredibly efficient use of time."

A Meeting Analysis

Based on what they found, at the end of meetings, the Data Wise Project team members now spend five minutes on what they call "plus/delta." The "plus" part means shout-outs for things that went well in the meeting. "It’s a time to celebrate team members and the hard work they do," says Lockwood. "It makes people feel good at the end of a meeting about how hard we worked to prepare, and the efficient processes we used."

As for delta? That means change—what could use some improvement. It is a very quick way to improve meetings, because getting immediate feedback alters practices in a way that smoldering resentments and behind-the-back criticism do not. Indeed, while the Data Wise Project team recommends various meeting best practices, if you change nothing else, the plus/delta habit will quickly bear fruit. That’s because "people will back into the other behaviors if given the chance," says Boudett. People might note that they felt ineffective because the meeting ran out of time. How can you stop that from happening? You can appoint a timekeeper. People might say they would have liked to have a copy of a document someone kept referring to. That brings up the issue of how people prepare for meetings.

Do this enough, and each meeting will be better than the last. And that means you may need fewer meetings while accomplishing more. That would be a big win because, as Boudett says, "There’s nothing better than getting stuff done."

Related: Are You Managing Meetings Efficiently?

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