Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Ships and Boats

Sharon Wildwind

When I was nine, I knew how to conduct a meeting. Some fifty-plus years later it appears that I no longer have this skill.

In Girl Scouts, the patrol meeting rules were clear:

Patrol meeting starts at 4:00 and ends at 4:15
Refreshments to follow. (Always an incentive for finishing on time.) The troop leader will hold up her hand when there is five minutes left in the meeting.

We’re meeting for a reason
Yes, the bike-hike will be a lot of fun, but today we are discussing the cook-out and campfire. We will discuss the bike-hike at another meeting.

The troop leader sets the agenda
Your patrol will be in charge of the campfire entertainment on Saturday. You need to plan one interactive game and pick five songs for the sing-along.

There was a right way to behave
Raise your hand before speaking. The patrol leader will recognize you when it’s time for you to speak. Pay attention when other people are talking. Be polite. Everyone’s opinion deserves to be heard.

Everybody contributes
Here is a sign-up sheet for the campfire. Sign up for the task that you will do.

Prep work is needed
We will need some extra sit-upons for our guests and sharpened sticks for toasting marshmallows. Everyone is expected to show up on Saturday with one extra sit-upon and two sharpened sticks.

Last week I happened upon a video of a talk about what’s wrong with meetings today, and how to fix them. Since the person giving the talk is in his thirties and most of the audience looked to be younger, I was all set for a glimpse into the twenty-something/thirty-something world of business and meetings. I couldn’t wait to see how the new technology — Power Point, digital hook-ups, electronic conferencing, etc. — had moved meetings out of the scout hut and into the 21st century.

Boy, was I in for a disappointment.

Here’s the scoop on modern meetings:

Meetings are a power play. If you have the power, you can call a meeting. There is no need to have a purpose for the meeting. People are too busy to make or read agendas. Just wing it.

Meeting times aren’t even a guideline;they’re more of a hint. Wander in whenever, especially if you are the person who called the meeting. However, never finish on time. Otherwise people might have time to do some real work before the next meeting begins.

Call another meeting for the same time tomorrow. The same rules apply.

Bring your personal data assistant, your cell phone, and your laptop to the meeting. Answer all phone calls, text on your PDA, and surf the web during the meeting. Don’t pay attention to what’s going on in the meeting. It probably doesn’t concern you anyway.

Bring food and drink. Extra points if the food or its wrapper (preferably both) make a lot of noise while you eat it. Extra points also if the food is sloppy and/or reeks of garlic, cumin, or other spices.

Take all the detours you want. If two people want to spend an hour discussing a topic completely unrelated to and of no interest to the rest of the group, it’s their right to do this.

It’s gauche to embarrass people by expecting them to take responsibility for a project or meet a deadline. It’s equally gauche to expect people to do any work between meetings.

Not only don’t I understand the new rules, but I can’t figure out for the life of me how we got here. When did people’s time, to say nothing of their talent, become so disrespected that we think we have a right to waste both?

The video did, indeed, offer some tips for improving meetings:
Meet for a purpose.
Have an agenda.
Start and stop on time.
Have a timekeeper.
Set and enforce rules for behavior.
Treat people with respect.
Set aside topics that aren’t relevant to the purpose and agenda. They can be discussed later.
Assign tasks and deadlines and expect them to be met.
Expect that prep work be done outside of the meeting and reported on at the next meeting.

You know, those things sounded vaguely familiar. I wonder where I heard them before?

The saddest thing that the speaker said was that people who try to promote a meeting format based on rules and respect are likely to be either disciplined or fired or both.

The speaker did say two things that gave me hope:

Follow the people who ship.
Meaning, glom on to the people who get things done. Learn from them how they do it. No matter what the organizational chart says, people who ship the goods on time are the real heart of any business.

The real value of a meeting is remove barriers. Nothing happens until a project has a deadline, a budget, and one owner. Otherwise it is a poster of a boat.
It may look pretty, and we might want to hang it on our wall, but baby, that boat ain’t going nowhere.

~The two bolded quotes above are from Merlin Mann (Techie Guy) from his talk to Twitter employees on 2010 October 6.
The non-bolded comments are mine.

1 comment:

Sheila Connolly said...

You left out the one about the people who don't read the agenda you carefully prepared and sent them in advance, and then ask a question about something that was settled three months earlier.

Running a committee meeting these days is like herding cats--everyone is heading off in a different direction. Or they're asleep.