Meetings are Expensive
Meetings are hugely expensive because they use lots of peoples time in parallel and often a near complete waste of that time because we lack the basic notions of how to make them useful – and no it is NOT (just) “run to an agenda” – read on…
My take on the pragmatism of project (really investment) success is a collection of practices; I call #pm_ngt – New Generation Thinking. One concept in the collection is ‘Deep Time’. Exemplified by the observation that a 1hr meeting of 8 people is 8 hrs deep or 1 FTE-day*. What is your local charge rate for a whole staff day?
*Full Time Equivalent
This post’s Trigger
I was challenged recently in a workshop on Leading Complex Projects about sharing our captured thoughts by sticking flip-chart pages to the wall or “the expensive silk wall-lining”. The room was dominated by a huge table – a barrier behind which meeting participants could feel safe, a typical corporate social need caused by placing people without the cohesion that comes from establishing familial bonds that allow for the dissipation of threat and stress and discomfort.
The combination of the table and ‘can’t use the walls’ dictates the seating patterns which forces some people to be face-to-face across the table while others cannot make eye contact without both parties leaning forward or back and turning towards each other.
Meetings fail because unaided conversation is a very poor means to explore a problem space. Articulating the effect of being seated, being behind a barrier, the minor value of the wall-lining versus the impact on share-holders of this group of senior people becoming able to transform the delivery record across their project portfolio led me to write this post.
Beer/ Tea and Skittles / Doughnuts – The Social Needs
In a business context conversation is often debilitated by the burden of unresolved overtones of social interaction needs – BW Tuckman gave us the model whose correct understanding justifies the project budget for beer and skittle. Picture. Time and money spent achieving a state of social interaction adequate to contradicting ideas without social elements dominating the exchange is vital so that problem solving is to the fore – the daily toolbox talk of engineering or pigs-n-chickens of scrum or ‘beer-n-skittles’ / ‘Tea-n-doughnuts’ is such a means. These are REQUIRED to dissolve the barriers to disagreement in search of ‘best solution’.
Pre-Reqs For A Great Meeting
In all cases a great meeting does have a purpose, and an agenda but this no where near enough, especially when engaged in decision making, problems solving or option development.
We also need to add that the meeting should be run without a physical barrier between people, that making and breaking eye contact should be easy, fluid, natural, where a single, shared visual record is evolved as a point of reference for all participants (notwithstanding the needs and additional capabilities of those participants without sight). A facilitator (chair person) should run the process and allow participants to focus on content. Process means regulating the social elements, the procedural elements and the focus on purpose.
The evolving record records everyone’s contributions and eleminates domination by repetition or volume or seniority. Recording needs syntax of artefacts and interrelationships such as flow-charts, SIPOC, cause and affect diagrams and dialogue-maps and influence diagrams, perhaps state-transition diagrams and use-cases, decompositions (Tree structures), dependencies and schedules et.al. No meeting facilitator should step forward without a basic fluency in capturing conversation. Without it we face the near certainty of unshared understanding of concepts, missing elements, truth by loudness/ seniority/ repetition/ first idea etc. (still to add pictures!)
Thinking Stood Up
In addition: people think better on their feet because the blood-flow to the brain is increased*, they work better when a shared reference point is the focus so that criticism is not made towards someone’s face but towards the idea captured on the shared display space.
Whenever we meet to solve problems or search for options the meeting should include a variety of expertises relevant to the subject, plus the authority to decide and someone (at least one person) to ask “why why why” dumb questions that challenge the ambiguities, the assumptions, the constrains, the completeness and if relevant the singularity of option. Every participant in attendance should introduce their role as to inform the debate or to make the decision or stimulate challenge. All others should be invited to find another cosy spot to burn shareholder funds. Proxies for decision makers should be replaced by the real-deal turning up for the top-n-tail (see next para).
Senior People’s (Approriately) Limited Involvement
Decision making often needs a senior participant which raises points to ponder. Their diaries are often crowded potentially delaying a timeslot that matches everyone’s availability, they often don’t want a long or detailed discussion, some participants will be shied into silence while others may show-off to be noticed.
An answer is to insist on their absence for all but the first 5 and last 10 minutes. An opening statement of 1) Required end-point, 2) Imposed constraints (level of available freedom and support) followed by absence until returning to hear 1) Recommended solution and reason for recommendation and 2) Alternatives and reasons against recommendation. Possible also to make the decision but this is often best off-lined if only for 5 minutes. (all timings illustrative only)
Now we have the context for a good meeting:
- It is conducted in a space suited to the purpose – lots of useable display space that everyone can see
- People are on their feet, comfortable (watered, temperature, know their role, socally at ease to say what they think and recognise that disagreement is healthy and directed at ideas not personality)
- The dialogue evolves in fro of the participants
- The facilitator is skilled in listening to and capturing the conversation’s contents
- Everyone is heard and their view-point captured on first expression (and repetitions pointed-out and weeded-out)
- Senior folk top-n-tail the detailed discussions
- Participants are relevant to the topic
Ta-da – value starts to flow from meetings