In defense of (good) meetings

by on Jul.12, 2010 , under facilitative leadership

Adriel Hampton wrote an interesting blog post entitled “Five Reasons to Kill ‘The Meeting'” that I felt compelled to rebut in his comments thread, and I thought I would write a bit more here on why I believe meetings can be more valuable—and less horrible—than Mr. Hampton and other victims of bad meetings believe, and in my next post, some tips for making that happen.

This post is an elaboration on the comments I made to his post.

Mr. Hampton’s argument is that groups can be more productive by replacing live meetings with online meeting spaces. His reasons are valid, and for many situations I agree with him. Certain kinds of topics can be explored and debated much more effectively in this way. I, too, have a lot of experience with virtual collaboration (in my case, internationally-distributed teams) and have even found that in many ways I can work more productively from a remote office than a common office.

However, even for topics that lend themselves well to offline discussion (such as a team wiki or shared documents), for anything that is important, I have found that final decisions are best made in a live meeting—preferably face to face, if that’s practical, but at least a teleconference. While anything is better than nothing, the effectiveness of the group’s interaction degrades along with the resolution of the meeting method. The most engaging way to meet is to have everybody together in a room—preferably with some social lubricants like snacks, games, a celebratory meal. This is far “stickier” than everybody scattered around the globe, wearing headsets, and distracted by who knows what else. Ask yourself how many times you’ve surfed the web or answered email during phone or web meetings, and then figure that a good portion of your team is at least as distracted as you have been.

Not everybody learns and communicates the same way.

The main point I made in response to Mr. Hampton’s post was that while his suggestions can work very well for visual/verbal learners and communicators, not everybody learns and communicates best by written word and graphics. Many people—in my experience, more people—learn and communicate best by auditory and kinesthetic means.

Here’s the comment I left on his article:

I agree that most work groups hold too many useless meetings, and for people with a visual learning/communicating style, your suggestions will be helpful for many goals that are not being met well by meetings.

The problem is that other people have auditory or kinesthetic learning styles, and they don’t grasp or convey information as comfortably through the written word as you might. Learning and communication styles also break down along another axis, logical vs. social vs. solitary (clearly your style).

If all of your stakeholders are visual, solitary learners, then shared written methods like you’ve described will work very well for a lot of meeting areas. But most workgroups have a mix of learning styles, and in my experience, auditory/social learners are the majority. Your strategies will tend to minimize their contribution.

Another problem is that even among visual, solitary learners, many important topics are best explored with real-time back and forth in which all participants listen as carefully as they talk, seeking to understand as well as to be understood, with clearly understood goals and decision-making methods. If that doesn’t describe the meetings you’re used to attending, I’m not surprised, and no wonder you feel this way! Most of us have attended far more terrible meetings than good ones—myself included.

Most groups benefit from some guidance and ideally instruction from a skilled facilitator. I have experienced for myself many times the incredible difference that good leadership can make, and if the meeting is about something important, hiring an impartial professional facilitator is something you can’t afford not to do. I greatly improved my own effectiveness as a program manager by learning and adapting facilitation principles and techniques, and I went from being someone who dreaded even my own meetings to someone who eagerly looks forward to facilitating for other groups.

Let’s break these ideas down a bit. First, about visual/solitary learners (writers and readers) vs. those other people (talkers, drawers, builders, tryer-outers).

Have you ever had an experience like this?

If you’re reading this article, then we probably have a lot in common. You write. You read. You think. Alone. And you’re good at it. Me, too.

But here’s what happens—right?

You carefully write up a proposal and send it around by email. You take pains to write a thorough discussion, detailed enough but not too long, with supporting illustrations and even good summary bullet points. You put a clear question or call to action at the end. You leave it in Drafts overnight and come back the next morning to fix up a few details before sending it out.

And then nothing happens.

You send another email. No response, or just a few one-liners come back. You phone a key stakeholder or ask them about it when you run into them at the coffee machine, and they say, “Oh, right. I read that, but…” and then they ask questions or raise objections that make it obvious they didn’t understand a thing. You’re pretty sure they didn’t even read it.

It’s frustrating! You know it was all there in your beautifully-written email, and you know that you covered all the most important points. But they don’t get it!

Why not?!

Try not to jump to conclusions. You’ll never know for sure.

  • Some people weren’t paying attention.
  • Some people read and understood but forgot.
  • Some people got behind on their email and are afraid to admit it.
  • Some people disagree so violently they can’t even think about your points.
  • Some people are too busy.

Story time!

I once had a boss who told me, “If you can’t get it down to one inch, keep it in Drafts until you can.”

Oh, my G-d.

I wanted to strangle her!

But eventually I learned. I found that the shorter my email, the better my chances that she’d sign off and support me later, or answer my question. The longer my email, the more likely I’d get a brusque response that made no sense, or no response at all.

At first I thought she just didn’t appreciate my attention to detail and the subtle nuances of the  situation. Eventually I realized that she appreciated all that and trusted my judgment but didn’t have time to get bogged down in all the grey areas. That was my job, and as long as I kept her informed, she’d support me to the end.

I (eventually) figured out that the thing to do was get her on the phone and tell her I had a plan but that I wanted her ideas on this or that aspect of my plan. She was great at brainstorming solutions and seeing when my thought-framework was off.

She learned, too. She figured out that where she was good at plotting strategy, I was good at anticipating risks. Where she was good at selling ideas, I was good at making sure her plans were bullet-proof. And together, we were better at collaborating over the phone or over lunch, even though sometimes I needed to write an email to myself to figure out what I thought, and sometimes she needed to enjoy a cocktail and ignore my babble while I worked something through.

So what do we writers do about all that?

No matter how well you write, you have to face the fact some people just don’t take in written information. Some people need to:

  • talk things out
  • touch things
  • draw pictures together
  • make physical models
  • conduct experiments
  • listen to descriptions
  • see people’s faces
  • think “out loud” and ask “dumb” questions
  • spell out the details of who, when, what, how

If you’re a good writer and you like working on things alone, in your own time, you might find this frustrating—I sure do!—but remember, other people find it frustrating having to read and work alone.

You’ll come out ahead if you take a variety of approaches.

I wrote more on the topic of written vs. phone and other communication methods in a Point/Counterpoint column with Tina Wuelfing Cargile.

Embrace diversity!

Rather than dwelling on your frustrations, take advantage of people’s differing skills and preferences.

  • The people who prefer talking things out are also often good at enrolling others in the decision and will enjoy presenting the plan to other groups (whereas many excellent writers would rather have a root canal than give a presentation).
  • The people who like to draw diagrams together often bring new insights because of their superior spacial reasoning abilities.
  • The people who like to build prototypes or conduct experiments will help you find the gaps in your plan, and often they’ll come up with improvements on your idea that you’ll wish you thought of. (Ask me how I know.)
  • The people who just don’t pay attention to their email are likely to pay closer attention and ask good questions when you talk to them.

But not just any meeting! A good meeting!

And how to have good meetings instead of crappy meetings will be the subject of my next post: How to hold better meetings.

What do you think?

What have I missed?

Which meetings should be killed and which should be resuscitated?

What are the tools you’ve found that work best at replacing meetings?

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1 Trackback or Pingback for this entry

  • How to hold better meetings

    […] Pre­vi­ously I wrote a response to Adriel Hampton’s thought-provoking blog post enti­tled “Five Rea­sons to Kill ‘The Meet­ing’” in which I argued why I think live meet­ings, prefer­ably in per­son, are valu­able, even though many of us hate a lot of them. Now I’m going to share some tips on how to make your meet­ings better. […]

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