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Meetings: Good, bad, and (sometimes) ugly
A meeting is an unnecessary gathering of the unwilling, led by the unknowing, doing the impossible for the ungrateful. (Slogan from a popular poster during the 1960s.)
It is hard to find a well-adjusted adult who believes that meetings are intrinsically productive or enjoyable. Most describe them as an intermittent and inescapable nuisance to be avoided when possible, rather like root canals or IRS audits. Unfortunately, many institutions and communities remain firmly rooted in the costly and inefficient meetings culture…
Meetings are neither good nor bad; they are a tool. Like any tool, meetings are essential in some circumstances, but problematic in others. Extending the tool analogy is useful: a correctly selected and well maintained tool, wielded carefully by an expert using the right materials, can be expected to deliver a quality outcome, while a tool poorly maintained or unsuitable tool wielded by a person without the requisite skills and appropriate raw materials is a recipe for disaster. In order to benefit from committees, we should understand their strengths and limitations. Fortunately, this is an area where considerable research and analysis is available.
Meetings have some very important strengths:
- Trust. Meetings can be a potent way to create or maintain personal connection and relationship, and build trust
- Communication. Body language and facial expressions add to the texture and richness of communication.
- Public commitment. The official commitment of time and space sends the message that this task is so vital it warrants dedicated time, administrative support and compensation.
- Structure. Calendarized meetings can be used as wayposts on a timeline, either prospectively as deadlines or retrospectively to mark completions of a phase and change of focus to the next phase.
Used and supported properly, meetings are an essential part of most successful communities. Of course, if leadership and membership fail to focus the committee, nurture positive communication, provide adequate recognition and support, adhere to the charge and timeline, and make the committee process open, these potential strengths rapidly become weaknesses.
Meetings have some serious drawbacks:
- They are inefficient. Each member of the group must stop all other activities for the entire meeting duration, although in most instances only a portion of what transpires at a meeting is pertinent to a given participant.
- They limit the resources available. The fixed duration prevents in depth or detailed conversation and does not allow checking the accuracy of what is said or doing further research. It is hard to present additional or alternative information at the time of the primary discussion, which is therefore either not fully informed or not completed.
- They are inflexible. A meeting has a scheduled time and duration, so participation is limited to those who can be in that place at that time. The fixed duration limits the amount of time that can be spent on any individual item. The fixed schedule prevents discussion or decision on issues or events between regularly scheduled meetings.
- They stifle creativity. One of the characteristics of group process in a meeting setting is that it fosters convergent thought. This is also a weakness, inhibiting divergent thought. Depending on circumstances, committees can develop consensus (a good thing) or result in groupthink (rarely a virtue). Research shows that groups larger than 4-5, creativity and problem solving ability decrease. The larger the group, the greater the negative impact of size on creativity.
- They filter out valuable input. Only those present at a meeting will know what is being discussed and have the opportunity to participate. There may be many other stakeholders with alternative perspectives or different/additional information.
- They are ephemeral. Once a meeting is over, the only trace are the minutes. These generally consist of a list of items addressed and specific outcomes. Details opinions, information presented during discussion, and concerns expressed during the meeting are all lost.
- They are intermittent. Because meetings are intermittent, a great deal of work is done and information shared outside of the meeting. These back-channel work processes successfully avoid some of the downsides of meetings, but they also mean that group participation and institutional memory are lost.
The following simple rules are commonly cited as the Ten Commandments for Meetings:
- Don't meet. Meetings shouldn't happen unless absolutely necessary. Meetings should occur only to make decisions, to solve problems, or to brainstorm. Even then, meetings should occur only if the work cannot be better done in some other manner. Meetings should not be driven by the calendar and be routine and recurrent (e.g., the first Tuesday of the month). Meetings are not an appropriate way to disseminate information or collect information. There are almost always better ways than a meeting to have a discussion. Meetings may be useful to start a brainstorming process, but should never be the entire brainstorming process.
- Start on time. Meetings should not punish the punctual or enable the tardy.
- Clear objective. Meetings need a clear objective (to decide on X) which is known to all participants in advance.
- Preparation and Documentation. Everyone should have all the information needed for a meeting before the meeting, with enough advance notice to review and process the materials, obtain clarification, and seek additional data before the meeting. No new information should be distributed at a meeting unless it is for the purpose of some later process. Minutes should be distributed within several days after the meeting rather than just prior to the next meeting.
- Conduct. Everyone should follow basic meeting etiquette: only one person speaks at a time, everyone listens to the person speaking, no sidebar conversations, stay on topic and task, no ad hominem remarks.
- Engagement. No distractions. Turn off phones and pagers, close laptops, finish eating.
- Visual aids. A large copy of the agenda should be posted, as well as large copies of important charts or diagrams. A chalk board or similar device should be available and used to track accomplishments and decisions during the meeting.
- Solve a problem. (see #1 and #3) - if there is no problem to solve, don't have a meeting.
- Location. If possible, meet where the problem is and with the people who experience the problem. That is, if the meeting is to decide about process X, it should happen as close to where process X takes place as possible, and people directly involved in process X should participate.
- End on time. A meeting should not cause participants to be unable to live up to their subsequent obligations.
And avoid the two Deadly Sins of meetings:
- Don’t meet but do no work.
- Don’t decide and then not act.
How and when should meetings be used, or not used, and what precautions should be taken? Here are some general guidelines:
- Meetings are often useful to get a project started.
- Meetings are often useful at infrequent intervals at specific intervals. The intervals can be task related, such as after each milestone to review where the group is, verify that the milestone has been achieved, and map out a rough plan for the next task and milestone. The intervals may be calendar related, such as quarterly to have a way to ensure that work on a task (or ongoing non-project work) stays in focus and active.
- Meetings can be used to maintain a comfortable and trusting social relationship among its members. (This does not automatically happen just because the committee meets. If this is the goal, concrete steps must be taken to ensure this is accomplished.)
- It should never be assumed that anything important and of any significant complexity can be accomplished with meetings not supplemented by some other group process.
- Follow the 10 Commandments: meetings should always have an agenda known to all participants sufficiently in advance, necessary materials should be available to all participants in advance, should start and end on time and have an explicit set of behavior and process guidelines, should use visual aids as appropriate, should avoid distractions, and should be conveniently located and scheduled.
- Several questions should be explicitly asked at the beginning of every meeting: Does everyone accept the agenda (purpose) for today’s meeting? Are all the correct stakeholders here? Do we have all the information or other resources we need to address this issue?
- At the end of every meeting, two questions should be explicitly asked: How did we do today? How can we make future meetings better and more productive?
- The record of information, deliberation and decision making at a meeting should be easily available to all participants, and there should be a user-friendly venue that functions outside the meeting time and is used for ongoing sharing of information, continued discussion, revisiting decisions, and future planning. This is most commonly done online. Consider opening the online process beyond the committee, to the entire community if possible. (This will be the subject of a separate discussion.)
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