How to organize better meetings

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MABSORBED MEETINGS more time and drain morale more consistently than any other business activity. Before the pandemic, managers spent an average of 23 hours per week in meetings. Since then, the obstacles to summoning people have fallen. Now that calendars are regularly shared, an empty journal slot attracts invitations like picnics make wasps.

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Ideas abound for improving meetings. Get people up so they can’t settle in for the long haul. Write a memo on the topic that everyone reads silently at the start. Throw a ball at each other to make it clear who has the floor and to keep the bigmouths from dominating. Most desperate of all, set aside time early for “fun”.

Yet there is a form of meeting that reliably results in good decisions and commands general respect, even reverence. This meeting is the jury. Any system that people still believe in after more than 800 years deserves a closer look. In principle, if not in detail, it has five lessons for meeting throwers and meeting enthusiasts.

First, its purpose is clear. “Why are we here?” is a question that humans face not only deep in their souls, but also on most Zoom calls. No jury doubts the usefulness of its existence, the nature of its mission or the need to involve several people. This level of shared understanding is something to aspire to in other contexts.

Second, its size is correct. The formula for 12 people dates back to 12th century England and the reign of Henry II. Provisional courts called assizes summoned this number of men to hear land disputes. It has largely stuck since. For good reason. More people would add votes, but no value. Fewer people would mean less diversity of points of view. The benefits of keeping the number of meetings small are not lost on Jeff Bezos, who applied a two-pizza rule at Amazon to limit the number of people in a meeting. The one-jury rule works just as well.

The third lesson concerns the agenda. Jurors have a very important question to consider and a limited number of choices to make. Clarity keeps people focused. No juror is likely to suggest taking a step back to think about what the criminal justice system should look like. And while many experts advise reducing the length of meetings, time is not a constraint: jury members don’t leave until a decision is made. “Putting a pin in it” is just not an option.

The fourth lesson concerns membership. Jurors are less prone to group thinking than the average meeting attendees. Potential members are deliberately drawn from a large pool, and anyone whose decision has already been made is supposed to be eliminated. Companies cannot bring together a group of strangers to make decisions for them. But they may consciously try to bring up unfamiliar faces and appeal to different perspectives. And just as a jury chairman is not chosen by rank, a moderator does not always need to be the oldest person in the room.

The last lesson concerns psychological safety, the willingness of people to express themselves. It can be difficult when your boss is frowning. But the structure helps. Trials are expressly designed to weigh a lot of evidence and take into account opposing points of view. Before juries make decisions, they must weigh competing accounts of what happened. The best companies echo this approach by structuring the discussions in order to properly test the arguments. Investment decisions at Blackstone, a private equity giant, are reviewed in meetings that consistently focus on the risk factors surrounding a potential deal, as well as what makes it attractive.

Things can go wrong on juries. Jury selection may rig results rather than improve them. Dominant personalities can influence the humblest. Plus, people can be really dumb. A murder conviction handed down in a UK courtroom in 1994 was overturned after it was discovered that some members had used a Ouija board to ask the obvious question of one of the deceased. (The accused was convicted again in a second trial.)

Obviously, businesses are not the same as courtrooms. Many corporate powwows are designed to impart information and create culture, not to deliver verdicts. Unanimity is not a way to run a business. And deciding the fate of a fellow citizen is necessarily more engaging than a simple professional visit. But being part of a jury is not an interruption of work. If you are called in, you can both do your homework and see what makes a great meeting.

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This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “How To Host Better Meetings”


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