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.
- 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 languagemeetings 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 Top Next Issue
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More articles on Effective Meetings:
- Remote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: I
- Whoever facilitates your distributed meetings — whether a dedicated facilitator or the meeting
chair — will discover quickly that remote facilitation presents special problems. Here's a little
catalog of those problems, and some suggestions for addressing them.
- Untangling Tangled Threads
- In energetic discussions, topics and subtopics get intertwined. The tangles can be frustrating. Here's
a collection of techniques for minimizing tangles in complex discussions.
- Meta-Debate at Work
- Workplace discussions sometimes take the form of informal debate, in which parties who initially have
different perspectives try to arrive at a shared perspective. Meta-debate is one way things can go wrong.
- Preventing Sidebars
- Sidebar conversations between meeting participants waste time and reduce meeting effectiveness. How
can we prevent them?
- Virtual Blowhards
- Controlling meeting blowhards is difficult enough in face-to-face meetings, but virtual meetings present
next-level problems, because techniques that work face-to-face are unavailable. Here are eight tactics
for dealing with virtual blowhards.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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