Friday, August 07, 2009

Creating Meeting Discipline

Anybody reading this blog has probably sat in generous number meetings. I'm guessing you haven't had a lot of those meetings I read about where everyone stands rather than sitting, in order abbreviate the proceedings. I've blogged here before about various aspects of meetings, which you can find here.

I like meetings where you walk out with a sense of accomplishment. There's this particular feeling that comes with successful group-decision-making that must be a pale shadow of what it's like to be a node in a hive mind, if such a thing really exists. One of the striking realizations I had in reading My Stroke of Insight was that our brain hemispheres are like two very closely cooperating minds. When the right people and right habits of mind combine something magical occurs. I think I remember first reading about it in Michael Herr's Dispatches, but I can't be sure that's the book. After searching on google books, I couldn't locate the quote. [Edit: it's A Rumor of War, by Philip Caputo, and the quote is here.] Like the rest of my generation, Vietnam was the "last war" and held a certain fascination that led me to read a lot of books about it. In any event, the scene I remember is a platoon leader recollecting the experience of directing his troops in a sweep, and his description of an exalted feeling of the extension of his own body, almost a proprioception, into the men following his direction. This, of course, isn't exactly the same thing as colleagues deciding general education around the table, but sometimes it seems like it.

Sci-fi has lots to say about the idea of group minds (as opposed to group-think, which may be its opposite), and naturally pushes the envelope. See the excellent novel A Darkness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge, for example. Science itself does too, if you will tolerate one more digression before pulling the chair fully up to the table of "what to do about bad meetings."

The term "complexity" became more confusing at some point because it came to mean, in addition to the extant meanings, the study of how systems emerge out of goop. Of course, this is not the technical definition, which you can find here. I've made a lot of hay in this blog with another kind of complexity: computational complexity, but the two are different. John Holland, who works at the Sante Fe Institute now (think Manhattan Project) developed some cool ideas about intelligence. Well, artificial intelligence, anyway, but who's counting. The idea that sticks in my mind is that of competing algorithms (like voices) that sound an alarm when they think they can contribute something useful. If their input is actually valuable, it's rewarded. Otherwise they may be ignored the next time, like the proverbial boy who cried "lupus!" or some other auto-immune disease, I forget. This is very like the members of a team or committee, who have to individually decide when their input is valuable, and slowly accrue or leak social capital with their reputation for effective contributions. With humans, of course, there are many other complexities, like how to speak, what words to use, how to interact with others, and so on. There are lots of things that can go wrong. I think mostly they do, in fact, because the meetings that are exceptionally productive seem few and far betwixt. This certainly cannot be a limitation of the people involved, but one of method, I present to you. But what method? By what cryptic scheme can a meeting be set in order?

I don't know. But, practicing what I preach--viz., that complex problems can be approached through an evolutionary method--I herein propose a starting point. I think the genesis for this was something I read long ago in the C User's Journal or Dr. Dobbs. Or not. Anyway I read about a protocol for conducting a meeting. And I don't mean Robert's Rules of Odor. Nothing is more annoying than the pedantry with which meeting minutes get presented and approved, after which all rules disappear. Nothing against Robert, 'natch. I just don't think the answer is complicated bureaucracy. Douglas Hofstadter created a game out of rules of order whereby one tries to bring the whole system to illogic, a frozen halting state. That's what I think of when I think of rules of order: a computational engine guaranteed to lock up.

No, what I have in mind is more like a game. We may as well call it the Committee Game. Here are the first draft rules. They aren't meant to be comprehensive.
  1. A referee is assigned to loosely enforce the following rules, with a liberal dose of common sense. It would be best if this were the committee chair, at least to start with.
  2. The meeting agenda needs to spell out the level of detail an item will be addressed in. Typically, "tactical" or "strategic" suffice to do this, but you may want "administrative" to talk about office functions or "meta" to talk about the functioning of the committee as a whole. Roll your own.
  3. Someone--probably not a committee member--is tasked to take timings. This consists of watching a second hand and noting how long each speaker talks. Doesn't need to be perfect. Simple statistics are generated from this for feedback later.
  4. At the end of the meeting, if anyone spoke longer than 30 seconds continuously, the longest speaker is fined a buck.
  5. If someone seems to go off topic, the referee should note this immediately by holding up some symbolic object, like a stuffed animal. Once the referee has the floor, he or she asks the group if they really want to take up that topic. If not, the offending member gets the off-topic symbol to 'own' until the next offense.
  6. A particular type of "off topic" is when someone begins to talk about tactical considerations during a strategic discussion or vice-versa. The procedure in #5 should be applied, and the scope (tactical, strategic, meta, whatever) explicitly noted, so that there will be a greater awareness of the level of discussion the committee is engaged in.
  7. Responsibility for being referee should rotate, so as to build a culture where time and effectiveness are valued.
  8. Defer to the chair of the committee when extraordinary measures are required, such as changing the agenda during the meeting, or suspending the rules. The chair is ultimately responsible for setting and executing the agenda, but defers actual meeting discipline to the referee.
  9. Periodically, the committee reviews its performance, considering how well agendas have been executed, the timing statistics, and other general considerations that apply. Improvements to the rules are made as deemed reasonable. Sample questions are:
  • Rate the overall effectiveness of the committee.
  • Are contributors getting to the point quickly enough?
  • Do you feel that decisions are being reached quickly, but with due consideration?
  • Do committee members feel fairly treated?
  • Are deadlines being met?
  • What could be improved and how?
  • Do you enjoy coming to meetings?
Even this level of formality may not be necessary. In practice, I've noticed a marked improvement in the deliberations of one of my standing committees simply by the group acknowledgment that meeting time is valuable. We agreed not to tolerate digressions, for example. It happened anyway, but I noticed that there was an awareness of it: "I know this is a digression...". At the end of the meeting we informally evaluated our own performance. We had accomplished a rather complex task in record time, leaving an hour for a sub-committee to polish the proposal. I think there was a general good feeling about the effort to make our deliberations more efficient and then seeing the outcome of that effort. It's evolution in action, and a pretty thing to watch.

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