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Volume 17, Issue 40;   October 4, 2017: Meeting Troubles: Culture

Meeting Troubles: Culture

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

Sometimes meetings are less effective than they might be because of cultural factors that are outside our awareness. Here are some examples.
A typical standup meeting

A typical standup meeting. Photo (cc) Klean Denmark courtesy Wikimedia.

Organizational culture is the set of attitudes, values, norms, and beliefs widely held by members of the organization. The elements of culture need not be self-consistent, but they affect the organization's goals, strategies, and structure, and its approaches to setting and achieving its objectives. The people of the organization need not be aware of every cultural element, nor is their behavior always consistent with the culture.

Culture can contribute to troubles in meetings. For example, if harmony is highly valued, people try to please — and avoid displeasing — each other. These tendencies can elevate the chances of taking a Trip to Abilene, which happens when everyone in a group agrees to a proposal that nobody actually wants, because they all believe that everyone else favors it.

Here are three examples of meeting troubles that have cultural causes.

Insufficient facilities
Organizations can sometimes be shortsighted about cost control. They invest too little in meeting facilities, especially those for virtual teams, which have expensive requirements. Scarcity of adequate facilities causes teams to claim time slots in advance of known needs. Once they claim a time slot, they feel obliged to meet, and to use the entire slot. This sense of pressure to meet can lead to a waste of everyone's time. If teams cannot secure the facilities they need, they meet in settings unsuited to the task — for example, an audio-only virtual workspace to conduct discussions that actually need an electronic whiteboard. When such mismatches occur, groups tend not to account for the shortcomings of the meeting setting. Meetings run overtime and output quality suffers.
Reducing facilities Cultures that value teamwork
sometimes confuse working
together with getting together
expense is often the most expensive strategy, if we account for the cost of the resulting delays and bad decisions.
Serial submeetings
Cultures that value teamwork sometimes confuse working together with getting together. Often, a team meets as one, when meeting as subteams would be more effective. One indicator of this pattern is a meeting consisting of serial submeetings — a sequence of discussions in which few people are involved or qualified to contribute. Each subteam takes its turn, while everyone else looks on.
For increased effectiveness, the team could have the subteams meet in parallel or at times they choose, reporting afterwards to the whole any issues or surprises. This creates free time for the team to assemble to address shared issues, or to connect socially.
Ritualized standups
Standup meetings are increasingly popular, especially in organizations that value Agile processes. Standups are supposedly shorter because of the discomfort of standing. But they don't help at all unless the content of the meeting is suited to that form, which works best for quick check-ins, for a total of at most 15 minutes.
Extended discussion of complex issues still requires chairs, a table, and maybe other equipment — like a notepad or a laptop and projector. Use a standup only when it fits the agenda.

You've probably seen other examples of cultural causes of meeting troubles. Send them along and I'll include them in a future installment of this growing collection. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Missing the Obvious: I  Next Issue

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