Tag Archives: meetings

Terrible meetings? Here’s a nesta reasonable ideas…

According to the American humourist Dave BarryMeetings are an addictive, highly self-indulgent activity that corporations and other large organizations habitually engage in only because they cannot masturbate.” (As in, meetings aren’t just ego-potlaches, they’re also for the recycling of anxiety and responsibility).
While meetings might be full of wankers, they’re surprisingly joyless experiences. “Nesta”, a UK think tank, thinks it has some ideas on “Meaningful meetings: how can meetings be made better?

meetingslonelyThey sort of do, but the paper, as it states is “part of a larger research programme” and couldn’t/is not intended to stand on its own.
The author, Geoff “Connexity” Mulgan explains that we have “old formats and new tools”, ponders on “why so many meetings?” and then offers advice on “linking meeting format and purposes” (see Barry above) and gives some recommendations;

  • The ends and means of meetings need to be visible
  • Meetings need active facilitation and orchestration
  • The best meetings are often multi-platform, and use visualisation as well as talk and paper

Good meetings make the most of their participants – and rein in the extroverts, and the most opinionated and powerful

“one recent psychology study found that three factors were significantly correlated with the collective intelligence of a group: the average social perceptiveness of the group members (using a test also used to measure autism, that involves judging feelings from photographs of people’s eyes); relatively equal turn taking in conversation; and the percentage of women in a group (which partly reflects their greater social perceptiveness).” [Woolley, A. W., et al. (2010) Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups. ‘Science.’ 330(6004): 686-688.]

    • Good meetings begin and end with a deliberate division of labour
    • Good meetings benefit from a conducive physical environment that heightens attention
    • Good meetings apply ‘Meeting Maths’: balancing time, scale, knowledge and breadth
    • Good meetings are cumulative – part of a longer process
    • Some of the best meetings don’t happen (or why you shouldn’t hold unnecessary meetings)

Mulgan then goes on to give succinct explanations of flipped conferences (send in youtubes of your presentations first, then turn up and engage), world cafe , dynamic facilitation, open space technology, the revolutionary thinking method (no, I am not making this up) , De Bono Six Thinking Hats, Sytegrity (see above for RTM), buurtzorg, holocracy governance meetings and agile.
As he drily observes
“There is relatively little evidence about when these work and when these don’t, and an odd feature of innovation in this field is that new models quickly crystallise as highly prescriptive methods, with little feedback to help them improve, or create hybrids, and very little formal testing or evidence.”

So, this is definitely worth a read, and perhaps thrusting into the hand of the stale activocrats who run stale meetings (for all the good it will do). As to what’s missing-
Parkinsons Law of triviality
Any sense that the radicalism of the “open space” will be captured, co-opted and used as a marketing gimmick, or just done so cack-handedly that it will empty the terms of meaning (Instead of ‘how not to be bossy‘)
The psychological needs of both the bosses (to be in charge) and the attendees (to be infantilised)

“The rest of us, with less responsibility in our day-to-day lives, are able to regress merely to being a school-child, sat in rows, listening to the Clever Parent at the front. No jobs, no direct-reports, no kids to look after, we can, for the length of the event, just be the docile/obedient Child.
Attempts to turn us into Adults in this setting will be resisted, both by those who wish to be Parents, and by those who want to be Children. Efforts at de-ego-fodderification are, thus, futile.”

I think there is a glancing reference to Jung [can’t find it now], but nothing on the fantastic psycho-analytically informed work of Rosemary Randall – “Collective and Community Group Dynamics… or your meetings needn’t be so appalling”- which someone has helpfully scanned and uploaded onto the interwebs

Other concepts worth exploring

“So we bleat on….”, or Q &A/P&A; the pathological meetings of academics, activists etc

This article outlines the very familiar pathological pattern of meetings at which dialogue is lauded and then slaughtered, the usual attempts to fix the pathologies, and then describes why they usually fail. It closes out with what COULD be done, and why it won’t be (it’s a conspiracy!!)

The pathological meeting

preening macawsWe have all been there –  at meetings (of activists or academics)  at which ‘the most important thing is your questions.’  (e.g. public events or seminars/panel discussions).

The set-piece speeches over-run, with most/all of the speakers exceeding their agreed limits, and so

  • disrespecting their own promises and discrediting themselves,
  • disrespecting the chair (who is either lower status to the speakers and can’t stop them, or equal status and won’t upset their mates)
  • disrespecting the audience.

So instead of, say, 45 minutes for questions and that oh-so-important discussion, suddenly there are only 25.

But wait, then it somehow gets even worse.  Because the so-called “Question and Answer” session runs like this; the chair just asks for a show of hands.  Hands belonging to the ‘usual suspects’ go up.  Mostly (usually) male.  Mostly people with long and glorious records in academia (lots of citations in journals) or activism (lots of citations by police).  These usual suspects then do P&A – Preening (talking about themselves and their pet ideas/ideologies/tactics/causes/concepts) & Attacking (“if you read my paper in…/”But Marx said in 1862 that…”).

Their ‘questions’ (at best thinly-veiled speeches) ramble on, and then the speakers ramble back.  The energy drains from the room.  The clock ticks down. People leave (if it’s polite to do so – happens more at activist meetings than academic ones, in my experience).  Women who realise that their questions are as good as the men’s don’t have the time to get their questions into the room.

The event organisers are happy (people turned up!), the speakers are happy (they got fed!) and a minority of the audience are happy (they got to preen/attack!).  Lots of other people aren’t so happy, but have no way of voicing their frustration.   Over time, they stop coming, either physically or mentally…

The failed attempts to ‘limit’ this

  • The chair pushes notes with ‘5 minutes’ across the table to the speaker, who may or may not acknowledge (old white tenured male versus young female grad student; no contest)
  • The chair asks people to limit their speec… sorry, questions, to two sentences
  • The chair explicitly calls for women to stick up their hands and ask questions
  • Questions are written down and sent up to the front for vetting .

This usually fails because;

The speaker (by definition high status) thinks they are the most important person in the room, the P&A folks thinks their contribution is the most important and women who were thinking of asking a question are now being patronised, tokenised and ghetto-ised, which tends to intimidate and demotivate.  The vetting tends to get done along Party Lines, and isn’t this supposed to be an open forum anyhow?

What could actually happen (any 2 of these innovations would be transformative. Doing them all in one session would probably blow people’s minds).

Why none of these innovations will happen

Humans don’t do change; ‘We’ve been doing it this way for years, it works’

Event organisers like being able to get elite speakers along, it makes them look important. They are providing the captive audience/ego-fodder for the elite speaker.

Panellists like treating the audience like ego-fodder.  It’s one of the tacit rewards of being high-status.

Some of the audience LIKE being ego-fodder, sleeping with their eyes open and entering into a tacit agreement of passivity with the organisers.

[None of this needs to be conscious to be perpetrated and perpetuated.]

These innovations would undercut the power of our lords and masters. They would resist, and not like the entrepreneurs who were trying to take away their privileges.  They wouldn’t necessarily be able to articulate it, but they’d know it nonetheless…  Career-limiting move for the innovator, therefore, and for little or no gain.  Thus do sub-optimal social ‘strategies’ and rituals continue…

“So we bleat on, boasts against the current, boring stiff ceaselessly into the future.