Allan J. Mucerino
WHY MEETINGS ARE IMPORTANT: A COUPLE MORE BRIEF THOUGHTS ON THE TOPIC
Updated: Aug 4, 2019
When I wrote my recent "How-To" essay on conducting productive meetings, I was concerned with two things. First, I aimed to provide details to address problems of practice. As it's been said, when it comes to meetings we have met the enemy and it is us. Satirist Dave Barry took it to yet another level when he said, “If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings.’”
Readers piled on too and sounded off on the institutional barriers they've encountered in their meeting experiences. Agreeing, that overall meetings are closer to the static and inanimate versions Barry describes than the utopian version where people are continually learning how to learn together.
It's difficult to measure the cost of underproductive meetings. Suffice to say they are costly, as evidenced by its interest as a popular research topic and the subject of countless leadership books, field guides, and blueprints due to its ubiquitous reputation for being a waste of precious time. I measure the cost by the missed opportunity to build a high-functioning team to expand organizational capacity.
Successful meeting teams create meeting spaces to share knowledge, reflect, and engage in deep conversations that lead to desired results.
They are loose enough for individual and collective aspirations to be liberated from the common role-based organizational design model that stifles creativity. While tight enough to accomplish addressing a collaboratively assembled agenda. Senior-level and other leadership teams should always be seeking new and better ways to improve the processes that rest at the core of its operational nexus. Team learning is among the component technologies of organizations that learn. Buoyed by interdependency and fueled by a common mission, successful organizations use meetings to learn.
Thinking together and exchanging information in a timely manner is just the baseline. Organizations that learn, learn how to meet. Creativity and innovation emerge organically.
Second, I was concerned with challenging leader-follower relationships that dominate hierarchical bureaucratic organizations, marked by quid pro quo contrivances and political gamesmanship. I have happened upon the behaviors more than a few times in my career. It's second nature for climbers. Just recently a former colleague of mine was sharing his frustration stemming from a climber in his current organization, an assistant superintendent, who recently chided him for voicing a dissenting opinion during a hiring team meeting debriefing. I advised him to preface his dissent next time by introducing it as the devil's advocate position, among the rungs on the ladder of inference, not for the sake of argument, but instead to determine validity.
Among his many contributions to organizational learning, Chris Argyris (see more on Argyris below) developed the ladder of inference as a tool to make sense of situations and coordinate group thinking in order to act as a team, the whole purpose of collaboration.
Introducing the devil's advocate into discussions is a norm for teamwork. Discrediting inappropriate behavior such as shooting down instead of welcoming dissent is a norm too, and it's everyone's responsibility. High-functioning teams are interdependent. Teammates accentuate the positive and the negative. It's the highest form of accountability and professionalism.
Flattening the lines of communications best describes the process of shifting the fundamental leader-follower relationship from impersonal and transactional to personal and relational, institutionalized by psychological contracts that define both parties’ responsibilities with respect to mutually desired outcomes. Pragmatic. Not dogmatic. Like any contract, psychological contracts require a specific level of detail to ensure both parties are comfortable with respect to the relationship. The concept is credited to the work of business and behavioral theorist Chris Argyris.
Among the earliest founders of the Organizational Learning movement, Argyris theorized that "what we do" and "what we say" are distinctly different in the context of the organizational milieu. He further argued that most people are unaware of the difference and the resultant gap. A psychological contract bridges that gap.
Are you ready to reinvent the meeting in your organization? We all have psychological contracts with many people in our everyday lives. We already possess the attitudes and skills necessary to relate to each other. The challenge comes in transferring the attitudes and skills to the workplace, and specifically to the meeting. Agreeing on a set of mutual expectations and honoring the contract leads to consonance. The opposite leads to trouble. The Agenda Planning Power Tool (download fillable form template here) removes the power struggle from the relationship and puts it in the process, where it belongs.