Distracted meeting attendees are an evergreen problem with all meeting facilitators, but data scientists take it to another level. Let's face it: A data scientist may forget their wallet, phone, or even their watch, but they are never without their laptop.
This is all fine and good when they're working at their desk; however, it's a serious distraction when you're conducting a meeting. Plus, you'll never hit your meeting objectives with data scientists who are staring at their laptops rather than engaging with the group. Here are my nine best tactics for keeping these meetings focused and productive.
Before the meeting
Tactic #1: Make sure you need a meeting. Most people abuse the meeting format by using it for the wrong purposes. Meetings are required when you need real-time, face-to-face engagement (i.e., dialog and interaction) with your data scientists like brainstorming or teambuilding. If you're just trying to push information or solve an issue that can be handled through a collaboration medium, don't set up a meeting.
Tactic #2: Make it their idea, not yours. Autocratically proclaiming a rule like no laptops in meetings is the wrong approach. Your data scientists will never own the idea, and they won't appreciate the directive.
Instead, use a kickoff or reset meeting to brainstorm and establish ground rules for upcoming meetings. If the laptop issue doesn't come up, just pose the question, "What about laptops?" They may need to be nudged to the right answer, but it won't be hard.
Tactic #3: Build a 30-minute agenda with 20 minutes of content: 5 minutes for setup, 20 minutes for content, and 5 minutes for wrap-up. 30 minutes is about the maximum amount of time a data scientist will feel comfortable leaving their laptop. If they trust the meeting will only be 30 minutes, you can probably pull them away from their laptop for that short amount of time. Also, always create and post the meeting agenda.
During the meeting
Tactic #4: Start on time and end early. You should show up to your meeting before the meeting starts to do whatever setup is necessary, and then start the meeting exactly on time according to some predefined clock (don't use the meeting room clocks, as they're probably not in sync). Your data scientists will appreciate the precision. Stick tightly to your agenda and end a couple of minutes early if you can. Never, ever go over — even for one second.
Tactic #5: Reinforce the rule. Have a poster made of the ground rules your team came up with (including the laptop rule), and bring it with you to every meeting. Hang it up before every meeting and take it with you after every meeting. If someone shows up to a meeting with a laptop, don't send them back to their desk — just point to the rule and ask them to keep it closed for the meeting. Be sure to emphasize that it's not your rule — it's our rule.
Tactic #6: Make it about them, not you. Most managers are worried about what they're going to say in the meeting instead of worrying about the attendees' experience. Then they wonder why everyone else is bored and checking their laptop.
During the meeting, make it more about them than you. What questions will you ask? How will you organize their thoughts? How will you make it interactive? How can you make it fun and entertaining?
After the meeting
Tactic #7: Reward good behaviors. People continue to do what they're rewarded for. Like many other behavioral scientists, I endorse positive reinforcement over any other method of behavioral influence. When your data scientists act in a way that promotes an engaging meeting, you and ideally their peers should reward them. Immediately after the meeting, make it a point to personally visit those who engaged, and thank them for their contributions.
Tactic #8: Learn from your mistakes. Nobody's perfect. The first time you try this, you may not be successful — that's okay. In Six Sigma, there's a technique called a Plus-Delta where you take inventory of what went well (plus) and what could be improved (delta).
If things don't go as expected (e.g., your data scientists start fussing about not having their laptops, which disrupts the flow of the meeting), think hard about what happened. Visit individuals personally to understand the angst and anxiety. They may have been set up to fail — you must address that.
Tactic #9: Make it better next time. Take your lessons learned and make some changes for the next meeting. You shouldn't do this in isolation — involve your team. You can even hold a special meeting to work through a formal Plus-Delta with your team and generate ideas for making the next meeting better. Even when your meetings are running well, there are always ways to make them better; this should be an area of constant and never-ending improvement.
Intellectually, people know that bringing a laptop to a meeting is a bad idea. But with data scientists, it's like telling them to show up for work with no pants.
I've given you nine of my best tactics for pulling off an engaging meeting without laptops. Start today by taking an inventory of last week's meetings and determining whether you could have used a different format. Then systematically put the rest of my nine best tactics to work. Before long, you'll have laptop-free, highly productive meetings.
Now, how do you keep data scientists off their smartphones during meetings? That's a whole different animal. Baby steps.
John Weathington is President and CEO of Excellent Management Systems, Inc., a management consultancy that helps executives turn chaotic information into profitable wisdom.