Recently, I read a post by Rands about how to run a meeting, and was blown away. Not because of Rands’ excellent writing (though it is; it always is), but because in explaining the attentional dynamics of how to run meetings, he was really explaining how to manage a classroom. I had a bit of a lightbulb moment right there.
I’d never thought about meetings as places that could be like a classroom before, despite the fact that many of the meetings I attend are actually held in classrooms. (Collect one Dunce Point; do not pass GO, do not collect $200.) Oh sure, I understand that you need a facilitator to ensure that everyone who has something to say gets to say it, and that people whose verbosity exceeds their contribution don’t dominate the space. But what Rands is talking about is attention wrangling: making sure everyone stays focused and contributes, and that people go away with their knowledge and understanding improved, and with a clear idea of where they are going next.
This is absolutely what being an educator is all about.
A referee’s job is to shape the meeting to meet the requirements of the agenda and the expectations of the participants. Style and execution vary wildly from referee to referee, but the defining characteristic is the perceptions of the meeting participants. A good referee is not only making sure the majority of the attendees believe progress is being made, they are aware of who does not believe that progress is being made at any given moment.
… which isn’t really all that far from:
An educator’s job is to shape the class to meet the requirements of the curriculum and the needs of the learners. Style and execution vary wildly from educator to educator, but the defining characteristic is the engagement of the learners. A good educator is not only making sure that the majority of the attendees are learning, they are aware of who is not learning at any given moment.
If you want to take this analogy further, you can think of traditional, top-down, boss-runs-everything meetings as primary education, where the teacher is very much in charge, and hands down information with minimal critique or interrogation from those in attendance. At the other end of the spectrum, adult education at its best is all about facilitating sessions with a light touch, allowing everyone to explore the material for themselves while staying on track. And gosh, I wish I attended more meetings like that. I mean, by the time someone’s old enough to attend a business meeting, they’re old enough to be treated like an adult, right?
Rands’ post made me think about the discussions we are having in higher education as we start questioning the old didactic model and moving towards something more interactive, student-led, and — whisper it — enjoyable. And I started wondering how well those arguments might be applied to the management of meetings in the workplace. Just as it’s a huge waste of resources to have students in class who are not actually learning (or who are doing so in functionally-limited ways), the cumulative workplace productivity that gets pissed away because the bodies in the room aren’t engaged doesn’t bear thinking about.
Disclaimer: I’m not exactly inventing the wheel, here. While I want to believe that many of you work in places where meetings are managed sensibly, I’m assured that there are plenty of workplaces in which meetings are still very much a problem. So if you do work somewhere where meetings are useful, if not actuallt enjoyable, then the rest of this post may not be for you — though I hope you’ll appreciate it as an intellectual exercise, if nothing else.
The person leading the session must add value. Historically, education has involved sitting passively and listening for an hour or two at a time while someone dispenses information, a sort of pre-digital iTunes U on highly degradable reel-to-reel tape. Clearly, in an era where most things worth knowing find their way onto the Internet, and students have to pay to attend university*, such behaviour is nuts: Nevertheless, there remains a population of educators whose idea of teaching is to read aloud from their slides. While I can’t substantiate or quantify this with reference to the literature, I have noticed that when people find out this is something I’m interested in, many of them are quick to tell me about this lecturer they had at university who used to read aloud from … you get the idea. Old-school models of what classes should look like still persist.
Likewise, workplace meetings of the kind where one person talks and everyone else listens are still alive and kicking. Seth Godin argues that disseminating information is a legitimate type of meeting, but I’m less and less sure of this as my time starts feeling increasingly precious. (Though maybe I’m just becoming increasingly precious ;-P). Just as there is a grassroots movement underway to try to rid education of the kind of ‘teaching’ that is really reading aloud, so we should be taking the same approach to eradicate broadcast-style meetings. Surely in both cases it would have been better to send round a document in advance, then take advantage of valuable face-time to have some sort of informed discussion?
Good session management means making sure everyone in the room understands why they are there. Devil’s advocates will by this point be arguing that not everyone reads documents that are sent around. Well, not everyone engages in information-dump meetings either. I mean, you can get me into the room and you can impose a no-laptop rule and whatever other sanctions you choose — but fundamentally, if I can’t see the point, I’m going to go off and be a tourist inside my own head, since that’s where all the really interesting stuff is happening. As educators, when we see this this disengagement happening in the classroom, we try to do something about it by emphasising to those in the room the relevance of what is being discussed. Sadly, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of facilitators I’ve encountered who have run meetings in this way, ensuring everyone is really engaged and taking the time to draw out the more recalcitrant attendees. And I think that’s kind of a shame.
As group size increases, monitoring and remediating disengagement gets harder. I hypothesise that there’s a direct relationship between a facilitator’s skill and what size group they can wrangle at once without disengagement setting in. I had originally written that larger groups are fine for broadcast-style meetings — but actually, larger groups just encourage anonymity, diffusion of responsibility, and loafing. And anyway, if you you’re going to broadcast, why not circulate a video or document so people can watch or read it at a time that’s convenient for them? It’s worth considering the participant’s experience: small groups increase the potential for better-quality interactions between those present.
To keep people engaged, you have to sustain their attention. My most popular post on this site is When giving presentations, the only rule that matters is the rule of attention, and I’m pretty sure this whole argument applies to meetings too. If you don’t get people’s attention to start with, you won’t even get as far as being able to convince them of the relevance of what you are saying. But once you have their attention, you have to wrangle it, or it will just wander off again; attention is fickle. Moving things along every five, ten, or fifteen minutes will help; the brain is crazy for novelty.
Nevertheless, even an agenda won’t save you if each item on that agenda lasts for half an hour or more; even the most pertinent meetings can lose our attention if they go on too long. Here’s Seth Godin:
Understand that all problems are not the same. So why are your meetings? Does every issue deserve an hour? Why is there a default length?
Excepting the rule of attention, rules are a millstone. I’ve seen people discuss photocopying for half an hour, for no other reason than there was sufficient slack in the meeting schedule. Courtesy for other people’s time goes a long way: while this might be all you have to do today, the other person could be squeezing you in between studying, caring for an elderly relative, and working a part-time job. My nightmare is people who schedule one-to-one meetings lasting an hour or more to ‘chat’ about a single issue, with no plan or structure in mind. I mean, at least in a one-to-one tutorial, the ensuing discomfort could be offset by having some pre-prepared exercises to work through, giving the whole thing a bit of structure. Hey, there’s another tip from education: do the preparatory work — it’s a whole lot less excruciating for everyone concerned.
Rules do pervade education: parcelling up learning into arbitrarily-quantised chunks of 60 or 120 minutes is, objectively, pretty weird, when really what you’d like is to teach X until you are done teaching X, or until the students have run out of attention, then call a recess. But much as I find it hard to justify two-hour lectures, I understand that this rules-based architecture is driven by the practicalities of scheduling lecture theatre allocation across the whole campus, for a population of several thousand students, each of whom is pursuing one of a hundred or so different three-year degree courses. Suddenly, organising a one-hour meeting for seven people across different sections of your company doesn’t seem quite so bad, huh? ;o)
It’s worth distinguishing between ‘rules’ and ‘constraints’. By rules, I mean ‘hand-me-downs': the things we do because the guy before us, or the guy before him, did them that way, and that we’re too lazy to change. Constraints are quite the opposite: these are deliberately-adopted restrictions designed to keep us on track and force us to be creative. Agendas, when adhered to, are one form of constraint; the curriculum can be another. There’s a whole organisational cult around the daily scrum meeting, which is short and time-limited and forces people to get to the point. I know people who work in teams that run a daily scrum, and from talking to them, it sounds excellent. However, it’s almost certainly less well-suited to academics, since the nature of our work means we’re mostly solitary, even when we are doing collaborative research — leaving aside that many of us don’t observe a standard 9-5, or have predictable hours day to day.
“Team working is “I’ll do X, you do Y” — not circulating a document for everyone to read.”
And the second, which just scrolled past on Twitter right now (synchronicity or apophenia? It doesn’t really matter): Meetings aren’t work. They’re what we do as a penance for not rolling along like clockwork..
Postscript: Okay, there’s one other rule I like, too: the rule of two feet, as practiced at unconferences and barcamps. If, despite your best efforts, you’re not learning or contributing, go somewhere else where you can learn or contribute. I understand that this might be contentious (leave class? walk out of a meeting?), but I dare you to tell me that there’s never been a meeting, or a class, where the only thing stopping you from leaving was a vague sense of awkwardness that you ought to be there — and I happen to think it can be done gracefully, without being rude.
* Note for North Americans and others: until recently — the last decade or so — a university education in the UK was effectively free. Yes, really free, as in beer. Summary here; you can trace a lot of the bitterness in UK higher education from the moment that Tony Blair’s Labour government (yes, they’re the ones who’re supposed to be socialists) decided to turn universities into businesses. Important exception: Scotland, because it is awesome and now decides its own education funding policies, still does not charge Scottish students top-up fees. Pro tip for future students: be born in Scotland.