The Secret DOS

The Little Emperor Strikes Back

(Don’t) Meet me in St Louis

This one has been a struggle. I had decided to write about time management strategies, but two hours in to writing, I had bored myself with the whole malarkey. Surely everyone just finds their own way, thunk I. Look – if you think it might be interesting to read about how I whipped Chaos’s ass into shape and ripped Procrastination a new one, by all means ask. But reflect on the fact that this blog post is almost a week later than I’d planned…

It’s been a busy week. What with subordinates jetting off to sunnier climes for training events and a mysterious lenten virus stalking  the staffroom, I’ve had to put all hands to deck. In between interviewing for new posts and covering old lags who’ve been coughing and spluttering convincingly down the phone line, well…I haven’t stopped. At some point I will write upon the joys of interviewing, but not yet. And in between these inbetweeners I have flung my hands up in the air, saying Boy, I just don’t care, as people have gone home early to feed the cat; texted me at nine o’clock to say that they are running late for their nine o’clock class; left work (and left work undone) at two o’clock; told me that they don’t need to use social technology to improve because a) they don’t have the time and b) they already know everything that they need to know; and missed meetings. Missed many meetings…meetings…Me T’ings… [WAVY WAVY DREAMLIKE EFFECT].

Yes, Dorothy. You’re no longer in Kansas. And Toto has no place at this meeting which I have convened to talk about meetings. I both love em and hate em. No. Not really. I both hate and despise them. So why bother?Image

Credit first of all to the anchovy-toting @pterolaur for getting me started; and to @EBEFL for introducing me to The Invisible Gorilla. Meetings? How could a DOS’s blogging inspiration run dry without laying into these: the scourge of the communicative workplace. To be honest, the only thing that meetings seem good for to me are to raise a person’s empathy for the poor students who often have to suffer the equivalent of two meetings strung back to back.

And yet, were I to take off my fishnet stocking mask and reveal myself (demurely) to “my people”, they would probably gasp in astonishment: You! You! But didn’t you write a blog post about how much you hated meetings? Ooh. The effrontery! The hypocrisy! Look, My People, I hate meetings, but you seem to need a place where you can publicly proclaim your disdain for me and for all of my initiatives. You won’t touch social media with a bargepole, so what other alternative do we have (now that the health and safety technocrats have definitively ruled against the suggestion for a pillory stand to be erected in the staffroom)?

My first pearl of wisdom regarding meetings is to hold off sending round any agenda before you ask yourself, is there really no other way? I can’t help but think that we often have meetings primarily because people often have meetings. If this is the case, it’s a pretty poor reason. Emails remove the need for a lot of meetings and -arguably- emails supplemented with Twitter remove the need for pretty most all meetings.

The second pearl of wisdom is to ask yourself what the point of a meeting is. Is it to pass information on to others? Email them. Is it to solicit views and opinions? Go and talk to individuals. Is it to coordinate with staff? Either meet up only with the relevant people or meet up with individuals. Is it to build team cohesion? Really?!?!

Like many things that we tend to do on a regular basis, I suspect that the purpose of meetings is rarely considered. Yet if we were to make some assumptions about their function, surely we are saying: there are some things that we need to discuss. The most effective way of discussing these things is to get all of these people to stop doing whatever work they are doing and to come along to Room X at something o’clock on any given day. We will keep them there until later o’clock. There is no better way of doing this. Put like this, I suggest, there are very few meetings that pass muster.

@ebefl’s reading recommendation proved fascinating. The science would suggest that groupthink is often synonymous with poopthink. When people are brought together to consider an issue, the resulting resolution is almost never the product of independent opinions working in harmony. It is inevitably shaped by group dynamics and the tyranny of the vocal. And the vocal, according to Chabris and Simons, are more than likely to be suffering from the illusion of confidence. The illusion of confidence is a human characteristic that tells us essentially that we know a lot more than we really do.

What then is the solution? The solution highlights, I think, the real function of the meeting: convenience for the authority that called the meeting. The best solution, it would seem to me, is to abandon virtually all meetings and replace them with more regular time spent with individuals. In these one-to-one meetings, people can pour forth their fears, suggestions, doubts and criticisms. And these can be processed by the manager who hears all from everyone. If someone accuses you of something that you feel is undeserved, the best approach is to try and triangulate that criticism: ask someone else if they have noticed you tend to shout at people instead of talking to them. WELL??? HAVE THEY??? The manager then becomes more of a sorting house for feedback and can then make informed decisions about how best to proceed. Decisions that then have to be raised with individuals in the team (who have every right and, inevitably, every expectation to consultation). This would be regarded by many managers as highly inconvenient. How the hell can we find the time to meet with every individual that works for us? How the hell can you afford not to meet with them? If you’re Alan Sugar, you presumably can’t meet with your many thousands of employees, but you can surely find the time to meet regularly with the next tier down of managers, who will then meet with the next tier down of managers and so on. 

There seems to be evidence to support the idea that the best approach is to solicit individual feedback and look to average out the various different views and opinions that emerge. And it is worth emphasising that although we are managers, our views and opinions are really just one more element to add into the mix. We too suffer from the illusion of confidence: the feeling that we know the right answer. If you too are struggling with meetings and the like, my suggestion is that you drop them altogether and arrange fixed times throughout the teaching period when you will sit down somewhere quietly with individuals and talk to them about how things are going and how things could go better. Share your thoughts and see how they respond. Make notes and put the notes altogether in a safe place: Evernote is a great storage space. Review those notes on a regular basis and eke out patterns and come up with solutions that you will raise with the individuals in further meetings. If you “know” that Teacher Sam is not particularly interested in one particular initiative, don’t leave them out: Teacher Sam might yet surprise you; or at the very worst, Teacher Sam might well despise you if they think that you are going behind their back. If you are close to making a decision that will be binding, send an email around to all so that they have time to talk to each other about things and get back to you (by a deadline) if there’s anything they have to say.

Meetings are really part of the scientific process: looking for evidence and trying to shore it up with triangulated support from multiple sources. Never assume that something is just because something seems to be. Always look for alternative explanations and then offer tentative findings for the scrutiny of your peers. It’s inconvenient, true enough. But remembering the faces of the assembled masses in one of the meetings that you have called might be incentive enough to give it a try. I’d be fascinated to hear if it worked for you!

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03 Mar 2013 - Posted by | Rants and ramblings

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