Holding good meetings to make good decisions

Having thought about email a few weeks ago, my thoughts were turned to another scourge of our times, by this great Economist article (reg req) – meetings.

If you can’t read the article, it uses examples from literature to highlight poor meeting practices, highlighting that ultimately Satan’s meeting with the fallen angels, where he lets them all put their ideas and they talk themselves into what he wanted all along, is good chairing practice [insert tongue-in-cheek emoji here].

There are some serious points in the article, though, and I am going to try to put them into practice more often.

Firstly, drawing on the Iliad, is to not have lots of people in a meeting just to legitimise decisions already taken. My engagement training has been going some way to countering that. The basic premise of the IAP2 approach, which is to move away from Decide Announce Defend to Profile Educate Participate has switched my mindset. And I think working online for so long has also had its effect – meetings are a tool to be used with moderation.

King Lear is used to highlight the risks of leaders that won’t listen to views other than their own. Group assignments are the bane of uni students’ lives, but one important lesson for me of returning to uni at 43 was how sharing a decision, idea, whatever before it is fully formed can really improve the quality of what comes out at the end. We all have different strengths and can look at an issue in different ways.

Lord of the Flies illustrates the scourge we are probably all familiar with – meetings that go round and round, lots of talking gets done, decisions get made but ultimately nothing gets achieved. I would add to that meetings where everyone leaves with a slightly different idea of what was agreed. The challenge is finding the right balance of note-taking – not every meeting needs full minutes, but some need a bit more than just noting actions. This is one that I really need to pay more attention to myself and will be applying myself to being more disciplined.

One area I love in the article is the example of the Talmud to avoid groupthink. If all judges are in favour of the death penalty in a case, it is automatically taken off the table, because something important might have been missed. The Sanhedrin talk in reverse order of seniority to avoid junior judges with important thoughts not expressing them if they contradict the senior ones. The article finishes with the fantastic anecdote about the 1920s board of General Motors reaching a unanimous decision and the chair saying “I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting, to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain understanding of what the decision is all about.” Stress-testing decisions is another way to increase their quality, though avoiding the Lord of the Flies problem of paralysis through talking about things. But an element of disagreement can be useful in reaching good decisions, and can help identify issues that will otherwise rear their ugly heads later down the line, and perhaps at a point where they pose more of a risk.

It all sounds so easy written down like this, but of course the rough and tumble of daily work mean we can’t always respect every aspect. But taking the time now and again to reflect on our meeting and decision-making practice will deliver dividends and is worth adding to the list of professional housekeeping.

Published by Antonia

I'm a British citizen, living in Melbourne, Australia. I head up the Community and External Relations division at Uniting Vic.Tas, a large community services organisation. I went to the London School of Economics and University of Melbourne. In 2008 I took part in the Eisenhower Fellowship Multination Programme, the subject of 3 of my blogs. You can find me on Twitter as @euonymblog or @antoniam

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