To unlock better decision making, plan better meetings


How can senior managers get better, faster business decisions from the meetings they attend or lead? Planning is key.

Here is an excerpt from the transcript of a podcast featured in the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out others, learn more about the firm, and sign up for email alerts, please click here.

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In this episode of the McKinsey Podcast, Simon London speaks with McKinsey’s Aaron De Smet and Leigh Weiss about planning more effective decision meetings. An edited version of their conversation follows.Diane Brady: Hello, and welcome to the McKinsey Podcast. I’m Diane Brady in New York. How would you rate yourself in making decisions? Most of us, it turns out, are not great deciders, and the more choices we have, the tougher it gets. McKinsey research shows that executives on average spend almost 40 percent of their time—that’s 40 percent—making decisions and believe most of that time is poorly used. In this episode, Simon London looks at the power of decision meetings and how to make them better. Joining him, Aaron De Smet, a McKinsey senior partner based in New Jersey, and Leigh Weiss, a senior expert based in Boston. Here’s Simon.Simon London: Leigh and Aaron, welcome back to the podcast. And thanks for being here.Leigh Weiss: Thank you. Good to be here.Aaron De Smet: Great to be here.London: The last time you were here, we talked about different types of decisions that get made in organizations and certain best practices around them. Today we’re going to be talking about decision meetings in particular and how to make decision meetings go better. Leigh, why don’t you start us off? Why is this such a pain point?

Weiss: One of the things that we found in our research is that executives on average spend almost 40 percent of their time making decisions. Much of that happens in meetings. And 60 percent say that the time spent making decisions is poorly used. It’s not very effective. And that’s a dramatic statistic when you think about the amount of time we spend at work.

London: So with the sheer number of hours that are spent in decision meetings, based on what we can tell, people are just not satisfied with the quality of the output?

De Smet: Exactly. The more senior they become, the more time executives spend making decisions. And it’s mostly in meetings. So they’re spending, as they get into the senior ranks, more than half of their time in meetings trying to make decisions. And they are saying most of that time is wasted.

London: OK, so let’s assume I am one of these fairly senior executives. I spend a lot of my time in meetings, a lot of my time on decision making, and I am dissatisfied with the productivity and the quality of that time. Where do I begin?

Weiss: Well, first, I would say there are four common failure modes from meetings that we’ve observed. One is that you don’t make a decision. A second is that you make a poor decision. A third is that you make a slow decision. And a fourth is that you make a low-commitment decision. And these are all common challenges that we need to address.

London: And a low-commitment decision is where everybody agrees in principle, but nothing happens?

Weiss: That’s right. We all shake our heads and nod yes in the room. And then we leave. And there are backdoor discussions and hallway conversations where we decide, “Actually, that’s not what we’re going to do.”

De Smet: My role at meetings is just to observe them. And one of my aha moments was that most meetings are designed to not make a decision. They’re almost set up that way structurally. You end up with a bunch of people in a room—talking about important topics. The job of presenting something has been delegated to an individual or a team. And they come in. And they present. And they haven’t actually made explicit who decides.

So you have a room full of people who are very important, who are very influential, and who are critical stakeholders. And there’s some assumption that either the one senior-most leader in the room decides or that everybody gets a vote. And sometimes the senior-most leaders just don’t make a call, which can be bad, because they don’t have all the information.

And so they invite people and ask, “Well, what do you think? What does everybody think?” And now everybody seems to have a vote. And the problem with everyone having a vote is that everyone has a veto.

So they present the one option that they really want. And they try not to have any dissenting opinions, because, otherwise, one person with a veto just slows it down. And this is where you end up with a low-quality decision.

London: So just to bring it back to the very practical: Again, if I’m one of these dissatisfied executives, where do I begin? Do I look at my calendar and think about the meetings and try to look for these ones that you’ve identified just now as they’re obviously not set up in a way that’s going to be productive?

Weiss: One of the things that you can do is decide whether you actually need a meeting to make the decision. And often a decision can be delegated to an individual role, a particular person. So there was a healthcare company where the executive committee was being overrun by decisions. And they took a look at the decisions they had to make and cut out 30 percent of them by delegating them to individual roles. Those were decisions like, “What are the benefits that we are going to provide?” That was delegated to the head of HR.

And when you delegate a decision, it doesn’t mean that the person can’t consult others. It just means that you don’t need a group of people to come together to make the decision.

De Smet: I would advise an executive not to start with the meetings—other than cutting them out if possible—but start with the decisions. So one of the problems that you often see is that we start with meetings and topics and who should be informed and aware and involved.

But if you start with a meeting around a topic and who should be involved, you get what most meetings end up being—a general discussion of people presenting things to each other. And that’s part of the problem. And it’s fine to have that meeting. But then be clear: The purpose of this meeting is not to make a decision. It’s for us to present things to each other.

Once you know what decision you want to make, then you can start orchestrating the meeting around the decision. This is one of the first questions: Can this be delegated to an individual? And if so, does the individual want to present something to the team? Because they don’t need it for a decision now. Now the individual can just go make the decision. And you tell them, “If you need help and you want to consult people, go for it.”

If you really need a group of people to make a decision, you start with who are the decision makers? And if you say, “OK, Leigh and Simon, you are the two decision makers,” then I would say, “OK, Leigh and Simon, who do you want in the room with you when you make the decision?”

And if you say, “Ah, I think for this decision—this type of decision or this recurring decision—these are the people who should be in the room,” then we set up the meeting that way. We say, “OK, by the way, it’s still Leigh and Simon who get a vote. No one else has a vote. But they want you here to help them.”

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Aaron De Smet is a senior partner in McKinsey’s New Jersey office, and Leigh Weiss is a senior expert in the Boston office. Simon London, a member of McKinsey Global Publishing, is based in the Silicon Valley office.


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