When I started working (I mean, working as opposed to the many months of training sessions) in my first job, I noticed people in the team spending a lot of time inside meeting rooms than at their desks. The work assigned to me involved coding a piece of software – at least that’s what I thought; soon it became clear to me that without talking to the seniors and colleagues i cannot get anything done. Not that it was unexpected but it astounded me that i spent more time writing emails and talking than coding. Worse was when i struggled to obtain availability of meeting rooms and subject matter experts. Thus it was evident that communication skills were as relevant as computer skills, especially when one tries to share ideas and seek improvements to make a collective decision.
I should have seen that coming. It was during the final years of college as we were preparing for job interviews that I encountered this construct called Group Discussion.
We had to debate on a topic and you are judged on how well you make your point. We were given the controversial one: to agree on the most effective form of government (in the subcontinent): democracy or dictatorship. I was still struggling to put my views across, mainly in English and was intimidated by the bunch of guys who waxed eloquence on the principles of democracy, while being struck by the plain and simple logic evoked by the other group who championed dictatorship. I was still waiting for my friend to open his mouth yet – I knew him as a sharp and fierce communicator – when I was prodded to speak. I kept fumbling along and made a mess of the only speaking opportunity. I was in a 50-50 mode mentally, but could not express that at all.
Formally, a meeting is defined as a situation when two or more people meet, by chance or arrangement. Effective interactions and collaboration among workers are the building blocks of successful organisations. The power of collective human consciousness is unparalleled. It is quite important to structure such gatherings since otherwise, they quickly degenerate into a platform for egoistical arguments and cacophony.
There are many simple rules for running meetings which I think are not so simple. There are companies that take it very seriously. Last week, i read about Jeff Bezos’ rules of running any meeting at Amazon, which included no power point presentations apart from insisting everyone to silently read memos for the first half of the meeting. That reminded me of a suggestion I made to my team many years ago. I was still a rookie but I had the gumption to strongly recommend that the entire team be forbidden from talking to each other for the first three ‘silent’ hours in the morning. I was not the most popular person in the team.
While I m not criticising the very purpose of social interactions in a corporate environment as such, I want to draw your attention to the fact that a typical knowledge worker in this age has less time for him/herself. More than 70% of my work time gets spent on meetings. They come in various terms and forms: discussion, idea generation, design thinking, status update, issue tracking, planning, synch up, stand up, get together, morning prayers, kitchen cabinets and what not. I read this somewhere: “a meeting is a chance for people to share their own confusion with a broader audience, contributing to the collective chaos.”
How to survive such meetings? How to conduct one? Enumeration can come to the rescue. When you make a simple list of items to be addressed and stick to that, you can at least complete the meeting if not solve world hunger. The real challenge is to come up with such a list.
I remember a particular issue-tracking meeting that occurred during a critical phase of the project. My manager asked the team about the progress of resolving defects which were pending for weeks. “We have made very good progress in the last two weeks; many of the issues are resolved; some of the remaining ones are being corrected; most of the corrected issues will be tested by tomorrow”. It took a whole thirty minutes for the boss to determine the list of issues in the first place.
Can we try to be more objective and mainly focus on data, facts and actions, while ignoring the emotions involved? At your peril. You see, meetings are also occasions where people vent out their frustrations, and real human connect occurs only when you let others express themselves. My own inadequacies in the listening front is well documented in my previous blogs. Having said that, I believe it is cruel to let someone go on in their line of argument when everyone realises it is a rabbit hole, especially with the time constraints we live with.
Ideally, a meeting is just a means to an end. An end outcome that moves the team forward. Actions are assigned and a direction emerges. In reality though, meetings need not always be so serious and I will run out of space writing about many funny episodes. For instance, I have seen people rushing to point at others as action owners, often at those who were absent.
But many a meeting occurs in a hostile/political environment where unwritten rules manifest and items not in the agenda dominate the proceedings. In such situations, a significant amount of time is spent post-meeting to minute the discussions and document actions which gives an opportunity for the host to shape the outcome of the meeting even as he was unable to influence it while it occurred.
Though one should not treat a meeting like a war zone, it is fascinating to see people trying to have the last word. But usually the ones who are able to listen to differing view points, forge relationships and offer creative alternatives emerge as real change makers. They make everyone think and realise it was worthwhile spending time away from their desks.
My college friend demonstrated that many years ago, when finally his turn arrived during the group discussion. As the crowd was already dissected into democracy advocates and dictatorship worshippers, our man got this to say. “I think we should try democratically electing a dictator”.