Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 17, Issue 39;   September 27, 2017: Meeting Troubles: Collaboration

Meeting Troubles: Collaboration

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In some meetings, we collaborate not in reaching objectives, but in preventing our doing so. Here are three examples of this pattern.
C. Northcote Parkinson in 1961

C. Northcote Parkinson (1909-1993) in 1961. He is the discoverer of Parkinson's Law, which states that "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion," and Parkinson's Law of Triviality, described here. Photo (cc) the Nationaal Archief (the Dutch National Archives), and Spaarnestad Photo, courtesy Wikimedia.

Meetings are persistent objects of complaints and disdain. One source of trouble is a set of counter-effective patterns in which several people — and in some cases, all who are present — collaborate. Their behavior isn't necessarily conspiratorial, though it can be. The effect of their joint behavior is to prevent achieving the objectives they say they want to reach. Here are three examples of collaborative counter-effectiveness.

Bikeshedding
The term bikeshedding applies when groups charged with attending to very important matters attend instead to somewhat-related trivialities. The more formal name for this phenomenon is Parkinson's Law of Triviality, first enunciated by C. Northcote Parkinson in 1957. Parkinson cited as an example a committee tasked with approving plans for a nuclear power plant. He compared the time spent on examining the reactor design to the time spent on examining the plans for the power plant's bike shed, and used that comparison to illustrate his Law of Triviality: "The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum [of money] involved."
If you already record the time spent on each agenda item, use that data to determine the incidence of bikeshedding. If you don't collect such data, address that very serious deficit first. See "An Agenda for Agendas," Point Lookout for May 25, 2005, for more.
Laptop walls
If the meeting room has a long rectangular conference table, and everyone sitting on one side of the table pops open their laptops, the result is what my colleague Steve Ropa calls a "laptop wall" — possibly one for each side of the table. The laptop users might be taking notes, but they might also be doing almost anything else: playing games, updating Facebook pages, or checking on their family pets.
Most Most meetings need only
one note-taker, or
perhaps one per language
meetings need only one note-taker, or perhaps one per language. If distrust is so widespread that people want note-takers of their own, then deal with the trust issue directly, instead of trying to circumvent it with multiple note-takers.
Attendance bloat
When only one representative of each team, profession, department, or unit has been invited to a meeting, and their immediate colleagues experience that selection — and their own exclusion — as an offense, those not invited might advocate a boycott in which even the invited representative elects not to attend the meeting. The result for the meeting in question is lack of access to important perspectives and possibly essential knowledge. If the meeting organizer succumbs to this pressure tactic and invites those not initially invited, the result for future meetings can be "attendance bloat" and longer, drawn-out discussions, as the previously snubbed but now-invited attendees desperately try to prove their importance.
Redundant representation of professions or organizational units is an expensive waste that makes meetings less effective. Deal with the resentments the created the boycott, rather than expanding attendance and letting resentments persist.

The meeting troubles described above generally require cooperative dysfunctional behavior. Next time, we'll examine systemic troubles in which nearly everyone feels entangled.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Meeting Troubles: Culture  Next Issue

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