What do you mean by "effective meetings" or "meeting effectiveness"

There is much talk about making meetings more effective and much of the meeting advice literature revolves around meeting effectiveness. At least that is my impression as someone who is not really familiar with those books (wont one start a topic with such books, just like we already have one for academic books on meetings?).

But I have not quite understood yet, what exactly people mean by “more effective meetings”. For one thing, there is sometimes a confusion between effectiveness and efficiency, but even if we look at effectiveness alone: what does it mean in the meeting context?

I seems to me that it has become almost synonymous with “good meetings” or “better meetings” and what is a good meeting is, obviously, an open question. Unless, of course, you define it as “A good meeting is an effective meeting”. Which leads me back to my question to all of you who are less confused than I am: what is an effective meeting?

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Interesting question!

For our part, we build the discussion about meeting effectiveness like this:

  1. Meetings are a tool. Their function is to connect people and move work forward. So, like a spatula or a vacuum cleaner, you can evaluate a meeting’s effectiveness based on how well the tool did the job.

  2. For any specific meeting, the job to be done may be expressed as a set of explicit desired outcomes. ICA has a nice model that breaks this down into rational and experiential aims, but it’s easier to talk to clients about how the meeting is supposed to create a tangible result and feel like good use of time.

  3. An effective meeting achieves meaningful outcomes. These may or may not always exactly match the desired outcomes, but they will be related and they will have moved the group ahead.

This is radically different than an efficient meeting, which just means it didn’t take up too much time. Efficient is a lousy measure of quality when used in isolation.

It’s also a bit different than a “good” meeting, IMO, because people will call any meeting that they enjoy a good meeting, regardless of whether there are any meaningful outcomes. To be effective, a meeting has to be both “good”/enjoyable and useful.

I’d be interested in other perspectives on this one, because I know we talk in a fairly idealized way.


Coming late to this thread. Interesting reflections. From my perspective, basically anthropological and ethnographic, I’m interested in what ‘effectiveness’ would mean for those involved and what would be at stake in claims that meetings were or were not ‘effective’. In my work with heritage professionals who are also civil servants, there’s an interesting tension: here ‘effectiveness’ is itself often conflated with new managerialist approaches which see that as a matter of getting rid of unnecessary ‘bureaucracy’, and from this perspective meetings can themselves be taken as evidence of that bureaucratic excess (i.e. inefficiency etc.). These kinds of orientation exist alongside a more classically civil service ethos oriented by a commitment to objectivity, independence etc. From this perspective more weight is given to due procedure, deliberation, negotiation and so on. So for them the issue is not just what kind of meeting should be held but also how many and how often. One might say that there are different ideas about what constitutes effectiveness, but more strictly speaking the issue is more about whether ‘effectiveness’ is necessarily good.

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Can you elaborate on this one some more? I understand that what constitutes “effective” can be very relative, but don’t understand the opposition in this last sentence. Are you saying that there are situations where it’s better to be ineffective?

I think you are on to something interesting here! But is this view of meetings as bureaucratic inefficiency your interpretation or do the civil servants articulate it like that? Because one could also argue the opposite: the perfect bureaucracy does not need any meetings so that if meetings occur, they would be a sign of insufficient bureaucracy (I think @hsjsls mentions this view somewhere in her book. In other words, ineffectiveness would be the result of too little bureaucracy rather than too much.

Also: I would distinguish different types of meetings, depending on how they’re organized. Some of them might then be called bureaucratic (e.g. because they use a lot of formal procedures) while others that are more informal could hardly be called bureaucratic.

Paul Du Gay at Copenhagen Business School made the observation that J. F. Kennedy, Tony Blair and D. Trump share a rather informal style of running their administration (for example in that no minutes are kept) and he makes the point that this is a problem for democratic accountability.

Thanks for these further reflections and comments. Regarding Elise’s query: what I am suggesting is not just that ideas of ‘effectiveness’ are relative, but that ‘effectiveness’ is not a neutral term and is not necessarily synonymous with ‘good’. From my perspective (ethnographic) I’m trying to re-frame the normative question (what makes for good or effective meetings) as an empirical one: when, where, how and by whom is the ‘good’ of meetings recognised? So to answer your question directly, I’m not saying that people in this context (heritage professionals) think ineffective meetings are good. Rather I’m pointing to the fact there are a range of orientations to meetings and ‘effectiveness’ is not necessarily the only or overriding goal; in other words that ‘the good’ of effectiveness is differentially understood, felt and registered.

This relates very directly to the issues Chrisoph picks up on. And, yes, my point is an ethnographic one – i.e. I’m characterising the attitudes and orientations of these heritage professionals, rather than advancing my own argument (or more precisely, my argument is a conceptual elaboration from the details of this case). In fact my work has been quite directly inspired by Paul Du Gay’s work, particularly in his ‘In Praise of Bureaucracy’. The kind of ‘new managerialism’ he is arguing against is very much at work in the contexts I’m interested in, and is strongly associated with market-based (i.e. basically neoliberal) discourses of ‘effectiveness’. It’s against this that the virtues of an older bureaucratic culture are extolled – e.g. to highlight the importance of neutrality, objectivity, careful deliberation etc. in the name of the ‘public good’. One could claim that this is just a different interpretation of effectiveness (i.e. relative to different goals). However what I want to highlight is that the term ‘effectiveness’ is not neutral in this context because it has tended to be associated with the kinds of reforms that Du Gay (and Chrisoph) mention.

Incidentally, Christoph is absolutely right to highlight that there are indeed many kinds of meeting, and a huge range of orientations towards these, including some that are quite contradictory.


Thank you - that makes complete sense. This is definitely a challenge we face in our work as practitioners too. There are absolutely situations that demand “bureaucratic” practice—something we encounter and advocate for in international standards development, for example—that have no place in small business operations. So in this way, the definition of effective is entirely situational from a design perspective. But, the participants in these different meetings have a mental model of “effective meetings” that is usually rooted in one of the extremes, so they bristle at the idea that they should strive for effectiveness in each situation.
Of course, I believe the word “meetings” itself is already so charged that it comes loaded with too much negative baggage to serve as a useful starting place for improvement, and that makes for a bigger challenge than defining effectiveness.

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What I find interesting regarding various web-based applications for meetings such as LucidMeetings or MeetingSphere (or many “ordinary” facilitation methods, for that matter) is that they introduce an element of formality into a meeting which might otherwise have been more like an informal conversation. And, I assume, that is why participants will be hesitant to adopt such technologies: we tend not to like formal procedures (which is what bureaucracy is all about), at least not in face-to-face interaction.

But there are many reasons to follow these formal procedures in bureaucracies (as Paul du Gay reminds us) as well as in meetings (as @Elise_Keith and @CCGPierre and many others tell us). A general term to summarize those reasons might be effectiveness (of various kinds).

So I think @t.g.yarrow is posing some very interesting questions when he applies du Gay’s distinction between anti-bureacratic managerialism and formal procedures to meetings and, more specifically, talk about meetings (for, if I understand your project correctly, Tom, your empirical material is mainly talk about meetings rather than the meetings themselves, right?). It relates well to the research I intend to start next year and I’d be interested to hear more on this…

BTW, @Elise_Keith, I realize that we have no information on LucidMeetings here on Kunsido. Would you like to provide some?

Thanks for these further insightful reflections. Yes, I’m absolutely interested in the formalism of meetings and the multiple ways people think about, talk about and also practice this. (In this thread I have been mostly talking about what they talk about but in most of my work I follow what this practically involves). So meetings as formal instruments can be positive: seen as a means to the ends of open, democratic decision making (after Du Gay); but also negative, as in derision of ‘meetings about meetings’ and empty form that takes people away from the ‘real’ work they do; or for that matter distances them from the monuments they want to conserve. These orientations are partly structural; partly generational (older people more wedded to the kinds of deliberations and ‘care’ the discourse of ‘effectiveness’ as in ‘efficiency’ sweeps away), but also the source of considerable ambivalence – the same person may say both these kinds of things at different times.

On formal/informal, there’s a good paper by Nicolas Lamp in the JRAI collection I edited on informality as a recursively ‘receding horizon’ of formality. He makes the point that the distinction is relative and shifts; and that each or constituted in relation to the other. He is describing the WTO, but the point translates to other contexts, I think.

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