Sunday, July 13, 2008

1...2...3...Eyes on Me.

We were talking technology pet peeves at dinner last night, and the topic turned to using laptops in group meetings. The argument for not having a laptop in a meeting usually goes along the lines of “if it was important enough for me to call a meeting, and to request your participation, then it should be important enough to you to give the meeting your full attention.” That argument certainly makes sense, but it also assumes the content is equally relevant and important to the attendees, and that the meeting is being well-managed.

Rather than placing an outright ban on having computers in the meeting room, I think it’s worth asking a different question: why are they being used?
- Are people multi-tasking?
- Are they reaching out to other people to contribute to the content of the meeting
- Are they preparing for their part of the meeting?
- Are they taking notes?
- Are they looking up stock quotes or the latest entertainment scandal?

I like to use laptops as a proxy to determine how the meeting is going. For example in a recent meeting, we had an hour-long presentation that I didn’t think was resonating with the group. When I looked around the room, 4 people were actively using laptops, 2 had their BlackBerries out, and the meeting organizer was doodling on her notebook. The next speaker had a longer timeframe, but the content was relevant, and presented well. BlackBerries went away, and laptops were closed or pushed forward. People were leaning in and actively contributing.

Do you really need to ban laptops to get people’s attention in a meeting? Arguably a laptop is a compelling distraction device, but laptops aren’t the source of bad meeting behavior – they just make it more visible. A better approach would be set groundrules for good meeting behavior. For example, the leader should double check the attendee list, and make sure people are attending for the right reasons and the right time frame. If someone is only needed for a portion of a meeting, and needs time to prepare a demo, or work on their presentation, why not suggest that they step out, and return when it’s time for their topic? If someone seems distracted in the meeting, why not encourage the presenter, facilitator or leader to draw them in? Ask the distracted person a direct question a few times, and they will realize that they need to put their attention on the meeting rather than email. Yes, it’s more work for the meeting leader, but it also likely means the meeting will be better managed. In a well-managed meeting, with the right attendees and compelling content, I suspect laptops would be used more as tools than distractions.

[Photo credit: Shenghung Lin]


Anonymous said...

well you already know I'm not a big fan of people coming in and out of a meeting, especially if the agenda is suspect (they are probably coming in at the wrong part). I am, however, a big fan of the meeting facilitator. Having someone more actively manage the schedule and/or the content of the meeting can make sure it's ultimately more productive for everyone.

David Haimes said...

This is an interesting and controversial topic.

I think the introduction of WiFi access at Oracle HQ was a catalyst for the huge increase of laptops in meetings. There is another phenomena I see where people dial into meetings from the desk even though they're in the building and sometimes just feet from the meeting room.

There are certainly some meetings I go to where I don't need to give my full attention all of the time, but I'm not exactly sure when I might need to chip in with something or be asked to contribute. In those cases I multi task.

One good thing to do is have a meeting facilitators who are able to IM people when the part of the meeting they need to show up for is about to start, this makes it easier to shift agenda's on the fly and that works well.

I was presenting at one event when the meeting organizer went around closing people's laptops when I started - that was quite interesting.

John said...

Stumbled across your post via twitter and a Kodak Gallery search. Well, if I could interject and suggest, taking a cue from Patrick Lencioni's "Death by Meeting", that the solution is not less meetings but more - more frequent but shorter meetings and with more drama. He has a kind of revolutionary and novel idea. I've implemented them in a few organizations and they've helped make the meetings much more efficient and focused. Part of it is based on the person driving the meeting and the clear objectives and goals he/she lays out.

GretchenA said...

Completely agree that facilitation is needed. And I'm in favor of more frequent short meetings - if that's what the content calls for. In both cases, the key questions are: what is the purpose of the meeting, and why is the person attending.

We're having a Baby said...

Definitely think facilitation is the way to go. In my world I host/participate in a lot of conference calls and it's pretty obvious that people are multi-tasking, even I'm guilty of it at times. We've started introducing breakout sessions (using MeetingPlace) to engage the participants more, rather than let them sit back in listen only mode. To date it's given us some good results. At the end of the day, if the person is interested they will be engaged, but the meeting has also got to be run correctly, a skill which is sadly missing too often.