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
Do you spend
your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!
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More articles on Effective Meetings:
- First Aid for Painful Meetings
- The foundation of any team meeting is its agenda. A crisply focused agenda can make the difference between
a long, painful affair and finishing early. If you're the meeting organizer, develop and manage the
agenda for maximum effectiveness.
- Let Me Finish, Please
- We use meetings to exchange information and to explore complex issues. In open discussion, we tend to
interrupt each other. Interruptions can be disruptive, distracting, funny, essential, and frustratingly
common. What can we do to limit interruptions without depriving ourselves of their benefits?
- Decisions, Decisions: I
- Most of us have participated in group decision-making. The process can be frustrating and painful, but
it can also be thrilling. What processes do groups use to make decisions? How do we choose the right
process for the job?
- Using the Parking Lot
- In meetings, keeping a list we call the "parking lot" is a fairly standard practice. As the
discussion unfolds, we "park" there any items that arise that aren't on the agenda, but which
we believe could be important someday soon. Here are some tips for making your parking lot process more
- 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.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming November 14: The Goal Is Not the Path
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- And on November 21: Make Suggestions Privately
- Suggesting a better way of doing things can sometimes backfire surprisingly and intensely. Making suggestions privately reduces that risk, but introduces a different risk. Available here and by RSS on November 21.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.