It’s almost a universal joke about how many meetings turn out to be useless and ineffective. And yet we need to communicate effectively with others in order to accomplish many tasks. How can we make meetings more productive?


                       

While you probably know a good meeting when you see one, what exactly is it that defines the experience? Is it something that could be learned and repeated by others?

My research group has been studying this question through the use of a unique tool – the meeting mediator. This device provides objective, quantitative data about a group’s interaction patterns by collecting audio and motion information from each of the group members. The meeting mediator not only measures these variables in the group members’ interactions, but it can also provide real-time feedback in order to promote changes in the participants’ behavior.

                                                

The meeting mediator itself has two components: a sociometric badge to capture social interactions and a mobile phone to visualize the data for each group member. The sociometric badges are capable of many real-time measurements such as identifying face-to-face interactions, body movement and proximity as well as sophisticated extraction of non-linguistic social signals more commonly recognized as enthusiasm, persuasiveness, and the like.The phone visualization is key in providing real-time feedback to encourage balanced participation and high interactivity in the group. 

What we have uncovered sounds like common sense, but has been very difficult to measure quantitatively prior to devices like the meeting mediator. For more productive team meetings, we have uncovered two interesting trends; the best groups tend to have two interwoven styles, cycling continuously between: (1) taking turns in an equal way, so that everyone gets to contribute their ideas, interleaved with (2) periods of excited “talking over” chattiness, which consist of side conversations that to serve to validate the ideas and build consensus. In fact, taken together, measures of these contribution and validation cycles account for roughly 60% of the variance in predicting group performance.

In addition, some of our research group’s work has also shown that the meeting mediator can be used in real-time to improve the quality of meetings by giving each group member feedback on their level of participation. This feedback is particularly effective for improving teleconference meetings among geographically distributed groups, helping to compensate for their lack of rich, face-to-face communication.

To sum it all up, group performance improves when all people are contributing ideas in a roughly equal way and when the group members engage in many short, chatty side conversations.  So, unlike your experience in most school classrooms, this is a time when it’s good to talk with your neighbor!

                                                                           

About the Authors

Professor Alex "Sandy" Pentland

Alex "Sandy" Pentland has founded more than a dozen companies and social institutions. He directs the MIT Human Dynamics Lab and the Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program.

Tracy Heibeck, Ph.D.

Tracy Heibeck, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and award-winning science writer.

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