Choice Architecture; how to avoid being a ‘Meeting Lemming’

Beware Weasels! Obviously not a Lemming, but I saw this while cycling in Austria and had to use it.
Beware Weasels! Obviously not a Lemming, but I saw this while cycling in Austria and had to use it.

This post follows the one I wrote about meetings being a virus that use human hosts to reproduce.

Paul Taylor rightly questioned; ‘we know meetings are a problem, but why are we unable to do anything about them?’. Ultimately there’s something strange going on with meeting attendance; people cannot, or do not want to, change their behaviour. No matter how bad the meeting promises to be, no matter how much we recognise this; most of us still turn up to suffer.

The sort of behaviour you might expect from Meeting Lemmings*.

Why?…. Is it just too easy to make the wrong decisions and ‘jump’ with the rest of the Meeting Lemmings? Well this might help…. Choice Architecture. I’ve recently been learning about Behaviour Change Science (and Choice Architecture), with people from the Wales Centre for Behaviour Change at Bangor University, North Wales.

Old Wine in New Skins? Behaviour Change Science (sometimes called Nudge Theory) has probably been around for ages, just called other things. Anything that involves trying to get people to behave in a certain way, or do different things would probably count as ‘behaviour change’. If you think about why many people participate in certain religious practices (roots in ancient history), or how marketing and advertising influence the products we buy (also quite historic), there’s lots of ‘behaviour change science’ going on out there.

At the moment in the world of public services, there is a huge desire to try to move people away from dependency upon services, and towards greater self-reliance. With this objective in mind you can see the attractiveness of ‘behaviour change science’. You may also have spotted ‘nudge’ and ‘behaviour change’ popping up on your ‘Buzzword Bingo’ cards at meetings?

IMG_3406The idea has been popularised in books like ‘Nudge’ (Thaler & Sunstein) where the idea is that you ‘nudge’ people in the direction of making the ‘right’ choices – you definitely don’t force people (that would be bad, the sort of thing Dictators do).

This is all part of an idea called ‘liberal paternalism’ which you can read about in this helpful paper; Choice Architecture by Thaler, Sunstein and Balz.

Choice Architecture and Meeting Lemmings? In the spirit of sharing, here is some of what I learnt about behaviour change science in Bangor, and how I think some of it could be applied to meetings. In particular I’m thinking about Choice Architecture.

The basic idea is:

  • We have a number of choices we could make around meetings.
  • How these choices are presented is called the Choice Architecture.
  • The choices we make are influenced by the Choice Architecture we face.
  • By presenting ‘choices’ in a certain way, people will be ‘nudged’ to make better decisions.
  • Better decisions will lead to better outcomes (hurrah!).

For meetings, I’m assuming that better outcomes would be: no meetings in the first place, much shorted meetings or alternative (better) ways of holding a meeting. This isn’t perfect logic, but please bear with me.

Boiling the meeting choice architecture down into its essential components, I reckon you have 4 key areas where you can influence choice, the core of most meetings:

  1. Attractiveness – what attracts people to your meeting?
  2. Timing – finding the time for people to meet
  3. Venue – the physical space where they meet
  4. The Paper Trail – proving your meeting achieved something useful.

Making better Meeting Choices: Here are my suggestions for improving meeting choices architecture. If you want a more detailed explanation of why I think these would work, the attached mind map hopefully explains it.

#1 Attractiveness – meeting attendance is always optional – people are free to choose if they attend. They will need to be convinced, ‘will it be useful to do so?’.

#2 Timing – prohibit the use of meeting planners and other ‘productivity tools’. It is a physical and mental hassle to plan a meeting. It’s a choice, do you really want that meeting? Have a look at Matt Ballantiine on Efficient Unproductivity which nicely describes the problem.

#3 Venue – keep it basic. Meetings shouldn’t be about the luxurious surroundings, the focus should be in getting business sorted. Also, spaces can only be booked in multiples of 15mins, with a limit of x8 units (120 mins/2 hours). Your choice of how long to stay in the meeting space is decided by business need, not comfy surroundings.

#4 Paper Trail – you are required to provide ‘written evidence’ that your meeting served a useful purpose – but there is no administrative support for this. Again, a choice with consequences.

My Mind Map - trying to explain the logic behind my thinking, good luck!
My Mind Map – trying to explain the logic behind my thinking, good luck!

That’s not going to upset anyone….. I appreciate that these might look like extreme options and difficult choices. I would however argue that we already know ‘the right thing to do’.

Articles like the Harvard Business Review, ‘All the Charts, Tables and Checklists you need to conduct better meetings’ summarise exactly how you should approach meetings. What all this good practice and advice hasn’t done is affect our behaviour, many people still behave like Meeting Lemmings. Maybe what we need is a different (and possibly difficult) Choice Architecture to ‘nudge’ us in the right direction?

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. Meetings are considered a waste of time by many people. But despite ‘knowing better’ they still attend, a case of Meeting Lemming behaviour.
  2. Behaviour Change Science and the use Choice Architecture can be used to influence the choices people make.
  3. The Choice Architecture around meetings could be changed to ‘nudge’ people towards making better decisions about avoiding/improving meetings.

*Meeting Lemmings. Lemmings are a rodent like mammal which is popularly (and falsely) known for a suicidal tendency to rush off the edge of cliffs and end up dead. They really should make better choices, it doesn’t make sense. The ‘Meeting Lemming’, should also make better choices:.. “this meeting will be a complete waste of time”…. but they turn up anyway, or worse, they organise it.

An actual Lemming - not as impressive as a Weasel.
An actual Lemming – not as impressive as a Weasel.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

3 Responses

  1. […] Behavioural insights – making things better? As this post is essentially about behaviour, I’d better mention something about behavioural insights, there’s a lot of material out there. Interestingly, from a ‘choice architecture’ perspective, the choice is a bit overwhelming… ha ha ha. (Apologies, I shouldn’t laugh at my own jokes, here’s something explaining Choice Architecture; how to avoid being a ‘Meeting Lemming’) […]

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