Meetings, Meetings Everywhere and Not a Decision in Sight

I was wondering when my lack of ideas, and lack of time to read feeds, was going to cease and a topic would come along that requires a string of crazy from me. The perfect opportunity came this morning. On the Bamboo Project Blog, Michele Martin talks about one of the things I love to hate, the f2f meeting.

Why do we get meetings wrong? More pointedly, why do we insist on having meetings for things that are much easier to do on the web?

Michele’s reasons include the following:

They’ve always done it this way.
They haven’t moved into that web-enabled mindset of asking if it’s something that could be better accomplished with online tools.
They have (in my mind, unfounded) faith that when people meet, there is actually a structured transfer of information.

I think she has forgotten a very important reason why face to face meetings persist. I think it is easier to hide the process with f2f meetings. If people do not know the process, it is much harder to argue against the result. It is a way to keep the power in the hands who have it and out of those on the bottom.

Meetings from Despair, Inc.
Image from Despair, Inc. the creators of the wonderfully hilarious Demotivators.

When you hold a meeting over chat, develop an idea on a wiki, discuss solutions to problems on a discussion board, or collectively edit a document, you leave little traces of the process everywhere. There are transcripts, different versions of documents, and there is an actual record of who made what comment and contributed what material.

In a f2f meeting, we rely on a person to take notes. We all know that Meeting Minutes are nothing more then a list of decisions and action items. Meeting minutes do not reflect the decision process, the tension a topic may have induced, or the crazy idea that got thrown on the table and very quickly was swept under the rug. Meeting minutes are the sanitized version of what really happened. Sometimes, they are so sanitized as to be completely useless to those who were not in attendance.

Conducting committee work on the web can be dirty, it can be chaotic, and, in most instances, it is open for all the world to see. Moving committee work to the web is the picture of radical transparency and that scares people. Big organizations hate admitting failure and process can look like failure.

We have to get over the idea that conducting our work in the open is bad. We have to get over the idea that f2f meetings are the most productive way to work. They are not. They never will be. Get over it already.

I believe the reason why some of our larger institutions are so slow reduce f2f meetings and increase the use of web applications is that the web will make them be accountable and transparent. *cough* ALA Council *cough* I am picking on ALA, but ALA Council is far and away not the only group guilty of pushing back on this.

I have found myself asking this a lot lately, but what are we scared of? What keeps us from doing this? If you are inclined to say no about anything, what are you scared of? Can it be overcome?

Forget creating a committee or task force to look into moving things online. Just have a conversation at your next f2f meeting. Set a time limit for the discussion. Choose a tool. Make a plan. Leave the meeting with the action item, “We will start using X to have discussions prior to meetings, ask questions, debate solutions, and draft documents and policies. If this does not work as we intended, we will discuss it, via the new system, and try something different. Department (or committee) members will give ongoing feedback and the group will be open to suggestions.”

Moving work online means that our f2f time will be more productive and meaningful. It also means we will be accountable for the work we do or do not do.

–Jane, off to a meeting

13 thoughts on “Meetings, Meetings Everywhere and Not a Decision in Sight

  • July 17, 2007 at 9:55 am

    A co-worker of mine pointed out that Meetings, though a large part of our job time, are not part of annual evaluation processes. The fact that you ARE on committees and go to meetings and such is, but whether you “add” to the process or “hinder” the process isn’t evaluated. The only metric would be peer evaluation. That is unless it isn’t a f2f meeting (because as you mentioned minutes/etc don’t capture well what happens) Any library administrators out there?

  • July 17, 2007 at 10:34 am

    Jane–you are so right that I missed a big reason here. Face-to-face meetings are so often poorly run, with no real outcomes, yet people can point to the fact that they were held as a sort of proof that action occurred. And you’re right that the one outcome we often do see–meeting minutes–essentially sanitize the process so we can’t really go back and look at what happened. Good stuff that I’m going to have to add in an update to my post. Thanks!

  • July 17, 2007 at 10:57 am

    As someone who has to very soon turn in a list of all my committees for a 3rd year review, the pain and agony in your comment leaves me in tears, of laughter. You are so very right.

  • July 17, 2007 at 12:56 pm

    I used to be a library administrator (assistant director at a public library) and I didn’t evaluate people on whether they attended meetings. Meetings were kept to 30 minutes or less and were held as rarely as possible (one on one meetings were another matter) so I didn’t see the point in evaluating the participants. I would evaluate the person chairing the meeting and I was evaluated by my boss as a meeting chair.

    As well, all our meetings were taped as per city policy. Notes were taken from the recordings, but they were expected to be word-for-word. I think that you can be transparent in f2f meetings and opaque in chat, it’s all about attitude.

  • July 18, 2007 at 4:16 pm

    I have to admit, as the secretary of a section of a division of a large professional organization, I came darn close to submitting a version of the minutes to the listserv that looked like this:
    “Lots of stuff said. Nothing done.”

    But I was good and actually submitted the real minutes.

    I cringe when someone sends me a meeting invite these days and always try to move as much online as possible.

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  • July 21, 2007 at 12:06 pm

    Ahha! So I am feeling good right now that I’m leaving for a place where meetings happen regularly but are short (like 15 minutes). No more grueling 1 1/2 hour surf or snoozefests!

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