Friday, 31 May 2013

Meeting every problem

You have to admire the talent in public and private sector management, that enables its possessors first to identify a matter that needs urgent attention, and then to take immediate, decisive action to address it.

By calling a meeting in ten days time.

One of the important things about a meeting is that you really need everyone there who might have something essential to say on the subject. And because we’re all really good at our job, what any of us has to say on a subject has to be essential. So it makes sense to invite as many people as possible. 

That’s why the meeting can’t possibly take place until the week after next.

Next a decision (it’s all about decisions) has to be taken about the length of a meeting. Two hours is suitable for a routine meeting, the kind you have every week whether there’s anything to discuss or not. Three hours says ‘this is a bit special’. Four hours tells you ‘really important’. But five hours or more means ‘urgent – urgent – urgent – don’t miss this whatever you do.’

You probably know the story about the wine expert who, asked how to identify the best wine on a menu, said ‘look to the bottom right where the prices are highest.’ We truly value what costs the most, and a five-hour meeting of a dozen senior managers isn’t going to leave you much change out of £2000 in staff time alone, and could be a lot more expensive still. So it just has to be really, really good.

Bored meeting
Because a couple of grand is quite a lot of money, it’s probably best to save a bit by not spending too much on preparation. After all, the goal of the meeting will probably emerge from the discussion. And agendas are such a constraint on a good, wide-ranging discussion. They tend to cut out the possibility for those wonderful, philosophical debates which to a pedant may seem irrelevant to the subject in hand, but which provide most of the charm of such sessions.

The other limitation on a genuinely enriching conversation is the keeping of minutes. So tedious and bureaucratic. After all, there won’t be many decisions taken, so everyone who was there will have a memory of what proposals were adopted, and most of the time, the differences between their recollections will be small and easy to reconcile.

Perhaps at a subsequent meeting.

Out of all this a goal generally does emerge. Often it takes the form of a consensus that there’s a need for further information, followed by a firm and unshakeable decision to hold another meeting in a couple of weeks to review the options in the light of new data.

I say ‘unshakeable’ but it is in fact subject to change if another matter becomes urgent, causing the follow-up debate to be pushed back. By which time, the issue it was due to address has probably become significantly less urgent anyway: the patient has died, the deal at risk has been lost, the need for the new equipment has been overtaken by events. So the problem has been resolved anyway. 

In some sense.

A few years ago I had to work with a Finance Director in the NHS and he was immensely boring in his refusal to apply any of the principles outlined above. All meetings I attended with him were planned to last an hour; they were never extended beyond the planned finishing time even if he was delayed getting to the start. There was always an agenda, and he always got through it even if the meeting started late. Several items had supporting documentation which was always distributed before the meeting, and if you hadn’t read it, you were in trouble: no-one was going to take the time to explain it.

Every item led to a decision, usually in the form of an action assigned to a named individual, with discussion limited to the minimum needed to reach that point.

It was so dull, my dear. We knew what we were aiming for, and we always got there. And we left with clearly defined tasks that we just had to undertake before the next meeting, which is just so like turning work into a task. 

To make things worse, decisions were minuted, so there wasnt even any wiggle-room for creative recollection about which jobs had been assigned to whom.

All the charm, the amusement, the comfort of those lovely rambling five-hour discussions of general philosophy, well, they were just gone.

Now where’s the fun in that?


Malc Dow said...

"five hours or more means"

Nobody knows what they are talking about.

David Beeson said...

That's about it. Or they just have SO much fun saying the same things over and over again.