Many of the Greatest concepts that flowed from Intel Corp. over the past quarter century can be traced, in some way, back to the mind of Andrew S. Grove. Who would have guessed that the inspiration for effective meetings was among them?
But there it is, right in the pages of the legendary retired chairman's 1986 book, High Output Management. Grove began Chapter 4, “Meetings — The Medium of Managerial Work,” with the opening volley:
Meetings have a bad name. One school of management thought considers them the curse of the manager's existence. But there is another way to regard meetings … a meeting is nothing less than the medium through which managerial work is performed. That means we should not be fighting their very existence, but rather use the time spent in them as efficiently as possible.
When Grove's book was first published, Tracy Koon was one of the people tasked with applying his ideas about efficient meetings to an internal training course at the company's Intel University.
“We do sit in a lot of meetings,” says Koon, who recently retired from her position as Intel's director of corporate communications, laughing. “A lot of meetings.” Grove's philosophy became hers as well: “Meetings are inevitable,” she says. “Let's look at them as a way to get real work done and real decisions made.
“Intel had had a course about meetings before,” Koon adds, “but it was of the ‘why we have meetings’ variety. I took it when I first got here, and I thought, ‘This is interesting, but it doesn't help me do anything.’ It didn't do much to tell you how to make your meetings more effective.”
Different Kinds of Meetings
In High Output Management, Grove made a distinction between different kinds of meetings. One was the process meeting — regularly scheduled events that managers were required to have with direct reports. He defined three kinds of process-oriented meetings: the one-on-one, the staff meeting, and the operation review.
To make the most of a process meeting, infuse it with regularity. In other words, the people attending should know how the meeting is run, what kinds of substantive matters are discussed, and what is to be accomplished.
By contrast, the second category, a mission meeting, has a specific focus to solve a problem or develop a plan.
Unlike a process-oriented meeting, which is a regularly scheduled affair held to exchange knowledge and information, the mission-oriented meeting is usually held ad hoc and is designed to produce a specific output, frequently a decision. The key to success here is what the chairman does. Very often no one is officially given that title, but by whatever name, one person usually has more at stake in the outcome of the meeting than others. In fact, it is usually the chairman or the de facto chairman who calls the meeting, and most of what he contributes should occur before it begins. All too often he shows up as if he were just another attendee and hopes that things will develop as he wants. When a mission-oriented meeting fails to accomplish the purpose for which it was called, the blame belongs with the chairman.
To avoid what Grove describes, says Koon, “We developed tools and templates to help people determine the actual point of the meeting, create a realistic agenda, and decide who truly needed to be there — and who didn't.”
The first version of the meetings training course, which took several months to create, was two days long. “We did role-playing and crisis management. We tried to give people techniques for interpersonal situations, as well as agenda formats and icebreakers. All the things you can use.”
Over the years, Intel scaled it back. “We now do it in four hours,” Koon says, “which means we don't do the interpersonal stuff. The level of detail of managing interpersonally is a more sophisticated intervention than teaching people categories, types of meetings, meeting planning, and decision-making skills. It's hard to get to the level of being an effective interpersonal manager if you don't even have an agenda.”
The current Effective Meetings curriculum fits into Intel University's new employee orientation. “There is a pretty substantial body of what I'm going to call culture-training classes, and this is one,” Koon says. “This stuff is embodied in the culture: problem solving, Intel's values, ethics, and meetings.”
Intel has a separate training program for facilitators, most of whom are contractors, though some work full-time out of the company's largest complex, in Oregon. “Facilitators have to structure an agenda, the icebreakers, and keep the meeting on track,” says Koon. “They're external to the group and not involved in the meeting's content. If you've got a dog in the fight, you can't be effective. So a person who has those skills can act as an honest broker and keep things on track.”
How It Works
The first step in Intel's effective meetings training is asking recruits a series of questions that many executives don't pose, but should: “Do we need this meeting? Is this something we all need to get together to decide? Can we do this on e-mail? Do you need everyone's input, or is the decision going to be made by someone else, anyway?”
“The efficiency comes in deciding when and if we need a meeting,” Koon says. “Or if you're setting up a meeting to make a decision and you won't have the decision-makers in the room.”
Another important factor in maximizing efficiency for the tech company: maximizing technology. “As time went on, we introduced more information in these classes about using technology,” Koon says. “The most evident is teleconferencing. In 90 percent of the meetings we do, there is somebody on the phone, because we have people all over the world. … We've had to go pretty heavy on etiquette for teleconference meetings: Making sure everybody knows who is on the phone, introducing everybody, polling. We've had meetings where two-thirds of the participants are in the room and one-third is on the phone. We'll be laughing or talking over each other in the conference room and nobody on the phone can hear anything. It's a waste of their time. We have to make sure they're involved.”
Intel also developed techniques for dealing with meetings that are headed off the tracks. When someone or something derails a group conversation — a “rat hole” in Intelspeak — participants in the meeting are empowered to act quickly to get back on topic.
Ways they're expected to handle it, according to Koon: “You two get together after the meeting to resolve this; take it offline.” It is not likely an issue that has to be resolved immediately or needs to tie up the time of eight other people. “Jack, you have the AR” — action required, in Intelspeak — “to take care of this with Sue.”
Another Intel approach for staying on track is known as “bin lists.” “For mission-type meetings where people are taking notes, the bin list is for interesting topics we need to talk about some other time. ‘Somebody needs to follow up, and Chuck, who is upset about this now, knows it will be brought up later.’ It's just a big bin full of things to do.”
The Cost of Bad Meetings
Intel places a high value on effective meetings because it has also put a cost on poorly run ones.
“Think about an incredibly ineffective meeting and what it costs people to be there,” says Koon. “[Attendees are] bored, they're doing e-mail. Think about the loss of production. Take 10 people making ‘X’ dollars an hour, stranded in a daylong, unproductive meeting. That's a lot of lost productivity and time. Plus, the less tangible thing is if you continue to go to meetings that tend to wander, that don't get you engaged, the potentially negative result is a lack of enthusiasm. You're left wondering, ‘Who are these people? This meeting is boring; it's useless.’ It's a negative and discouraging thing to go through a flailing and inefficient meeting time after time.”
That's also something Grove addressed in his book:
If the chairman forces you to show up at a meeting prepared and on time, you might consider him a drill sergeant. But if you show up on time, ready to work, and someone else doesn't and isn't, you'll probably begrudge the person responsible for wasting your time.
How does Intel measure the difference its course makes?
“Given that we measure everything here,” she admits, “nobody's ever asked me to try to measure it. But I think there is an assumption that time well-spent produces productivity. Intuitively we say, ‘If we're training people to spend less time to do the right things and not to spend time to do irrelevant things, the assumption is that it increases productivity.’”
Word of Intel's Effective Meetings course and its implied value is spreading, and the company's tactics were featured in The Wall Street Journal. “We even have had companies that have called us and taken some of the material,” says Koon.
She relates a story that shows how ingrained the habits they have taught people over the past 20 years can become: “The other night I saw a guy who worked with me for many years until he got a great opportunity with a software company. He said, ‘I had a meeting with this person. And you know what happened? I was taking notes. Halfway through the meeting, she looked across the desk and said, “What are you writing?”’ He showed her. And then she showed him her notes — the exact same thing. Then she said (realizing their common background), ‘When did you leave Intel?’”