The Art of Meetings

Someone just called a meeting. A 17-point agenda was circulated yesterday, attendance is mandatory, and a cold chill runs up your spine as you don your pen and palm pilot and psych yourself up for another 90-minute barrage of action points.

Meetings That Work
There’s more to a meeting than watching people squirm; we hold meetings for more purpose than because we’re lonely, so why do our meetings fail? Maybe it’s time to step out from “like everyone else” and into “ahead of the rest”.

Like many common causes in business, meeting failures arise not because we do not know any better, but because we try to be something more than who we are, living up to some ideal “business behavior”. We hammer out “agenda” memos and hammer on action points — we do and say things we would use with our friends, yet we do them to the very people we depend on for our success!

Treating our coworkers as friends overrides all other rules, but there are other common sense guidelines to break the grip of “being business-like”.

1. Pick a Star, Steer by It.
An agenda is not a list of topic points to discuss. Think of the phrase “she has a hidden agenda” — that’s the meaning you want.

Having an agenda means knowing what you want; how else can you know when you get it? At the very start of the meeting, or even before it starts, state what you want and spend time to find out what others expect to get. When it comes time to meet, stick to those agenda goals

It’s ok to wander off-topic, we all do, but you should say (as soon as possible) “that’s very nice but …” and pull it back on track. Remember: the auto-pilot in an aircraft spends 99% of its time off course; it’s job is to apply corrections, without malice — it’s job is not to apply stifling constraints.

2. Understand the Whole Ecology
Business meetings fail when they produce no common understanding, and common understanding only arises when we know how everyone fits together to make the project. This is not about MsProject charts. It’s about understanding communities. Common understanding cannot occur where some feel unqualified or without permission to speak — a meeting where only one person speaks is called a ‘lecture’.

Every person in that room has some stake in this project. Every last one. These are our hopes, the personal hopes which keep up the passion that power the endurance we need to complete the project. Every person also has their own set of fears, the worries that will sap our endurance. When you identify these stakes, you can know where everyone stands, and you’re well on your way.

This is not your project. It is not “the company’s project”. It is always everyone’s project, their spouses’ and their kids’ too. You are all in this together.

3. Keep in motion
Knowing the star to steer you by, and understanding and accepting everyone’s needs and concerns, you need to keep in motion towards your purpose. This is as true of the project over all as it is of each moment in the meeting.

How you meet is unimportant. Working from our remote office in Sauble Beach, I’ve heard all the arguments about remote meeting technologies. Some want “face to face”, some want interactive online media, some want full-frame video, others are happy with teleconference, some Usenet, others email. Do these technologies work? Yes and no on all counts.

The technology is not the salve — I have been on projects where IRC was played to death whereas others have used USENET or email very effectively. The essential success factor is management. If you know what you want, you can pilot your meetings to your destination.

4. Doing What Needs Doing
Every meeting generates more questions; that’s what happens when people get together and think. It’s also one reason why meetings can seem daunting: After each meeting, regardless how rosy the status, it always seems like there is now more work than ever, and this is true.

Task your people with answering these new questions (or on asking more) — use the time-shifting collaborative technology to post your meeting notes, clearly stating all responsibilities, then follow up and pester the primes for results (or at least some change in their status).

5. “The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas”
Linus Pauling’s words belong on every corporate letterhead. In 25 years, I have never encountered any project that really had the whole picture, the entire goal set from the start. Well, maybe once when Mitel knew they wanted an ISDN switch to handle a certain spec, but even there, we had many unanswered issues and deft improvs before the concept was a working box.

Because you won’t know what you really want until you see what you don’t want, plan for improvisation and experiment. Goals are fine, but not if they blind you to possibilities. Even where time and budgets seem constraining, be prepared to try things, as rapidly as possible. Your most volatile document is always your business requirements; only fools ask for those up front.

The cross-product of humans together always generates ideas. Yes, some are silly, but even the silliest idea can spark a flash of genius. Like teenagers doing homework on AIM, we’re smarter when we put our heads together and we know it. Meeting are deep running schools of slippery ideas and innovations, but you can only catch them if you lure them to the surface.

To be passionate about their work, people must feel included and engaged. Where two arguments can’t reconcile, ask a demonstration of both; at worst, you have reassured both that you value their ideas and you are willing to try anything that brings you closer to your business goals.

Ask before you tell, listen before you speak.

6. Brevity is the Art
My last rule: Ears capture more hearts than tongues.

Listen. You need ideas, collect concerns and find what will hook them into your goals, so this makes sense. If you have something lengthy to say, send it in advance; the meeting is your chance to play audience; don’t waste it.

A fun exercise: Before the meeting, put 10 small pebbles in your pocket, and every time you want to voice a response, discreetly move one pebble to another pocket. Do the whole meeting only moving the pile of 10 stones once.

Meetings Becoming Gatherings
Remember how, back in your academic days, getting together with colleagues was a fun thing? You could meet after class and not notice the time until the cafe tossed you out at closing time. No shred of tedious. Why? It was dynamic, you were engaged, sparring with peers renews your passions, and because everyone walked away with more than they brought.

Given just a little out-of-the-box thinking, meetings can recapture this. After all, you are all in that room for some purpose, each and every one. You each know why you are there, and we all want to take home something more than just a paycheck. Far from tedious distraction, meetings are rich opportunities we squander at our own risk.

So go ahead, toss the agenda point lists and unplug the powerpoints. Everything you need is there in that room, inside the heads of everyone present, and all you need do is tease it out, and pull it all together.

Copyright © 2002 by Gary Lawrence Murphy, Sauble Beach Ontario Canada. This material is subject to the Open Publication License []

Consultant, author, speaker, musician, teacher, husband and father of five, Gary Lawrence Murphy is president of Teledynamics Communications Inc, a ruthlessly small business nanocorp based in Sauble Beach, Ontario. Contributing author to Redhat Unleashed and the Open Source Web Site Construction Kit, Gary’s primary work is Internet R&D for large media portals and community network communications.

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