Don’t Underestimate ‘I’. Don’t Slip Too Easily Into ‘We’

The remarkable and much-missed David Ogilvy said, ‘Search all your parks in all your cities. You’ll find no statues of committees’.

As usual, he was right. Ogilvy was a one-off. He was brilliantly successful as a leader and agency head. A talented writer, and a good salesman. But read his books, and he probably wasn’t much of a democrat. The Ogilvy stories were about him. He didn’t share the quotes around. He was pretty much an ‘I’ man, not much of a ‘we’ guy. His job was to persuade clients to entrust him with their advertising, and then produce ideas and copy that sold. His era was before the copywriter/art director team became the default setting. Ideas came from one man – him.

There’s a lesson there, I believe, despite it being an unfashionable view. Michael Palin has just had a big birthday, and I read his plea to give the more mature some credit for wisdom. If I also qualify as ‘wise’, my observation would be that people too readily take the ‘we’ position when they put forward an idea which they, as an individual, have come up with. If you have an idea, it’s your idea, not one from a collective. There’s nothing wrong with one person having an idea. That is where the vast majority of ideas come from. If you say ‘we have had an idea’ when it was yours, it doesn’t make the idea any stronger, and it makes you less interesting.

I’m fresh from tackling decision making in ‘Decide’, and challenging the conventional wisdom that successful deciders are all left brain thinkers who rely on logic and reason. They aren’t. Gut feel is vital. My next target is the myth that it is productive to put clever people in conference rooms to play out the familiar ritual of ‘the meeting’.

The meeting ritual is familiar because it happens in every organisation, worldwide, all the time. While I am writing this piece and while you are reading it, and indeed when we are both asleep, millions of meetings will be in progress somewhere on the planet.

To be clear, I’m not talking about all meetings. Some are largely or purely to inform. Usually, but not always, top down. Something has happened or been decided, and this is what we are going to do about it. Understood? Any questions? It is obviously better, if possible, to tell people something important. Even a quick meeting is preferable to a few words in an email or on a notice board.

I am talking about meetings that are designed to produce or lead to a decision. So what can go wrong with meetings like that?

Our diaries tell us that we spend half our working life in them, but strangely we seldom connect meetings with decision making. This is largely because very few of the meetings we attend seem to produce any decision at all. They start, we talk, they just end, and then we fix the next one. Yet all organisations rely on meetings to develop, process and ratify decisions. Shouldn’t decision taking be about using meetings to engage colleagues and refine the final decision so it is as good as possible?


If only! Three main problems here. The first is down to one of the most disappointing facts of human life. Clever people don’t always behave in a clever way. In this instance having the ability to make good decisions doesn’t mean that you are in fact a consistently good decision-maker. Nor does having clever people in a meeting room necessarily produce great results or good decisions.


Secondly the meeting has also evolved into a social occasion – a chance to escape from the solitary tedium of life on the work station. I read recently someone describing the meeting as “a practical alternative to work: you get to meet other people, feel important, impress your colleagues – all in work time”.


Thirdly, the average meeting is ineffective because it simply doesn’t work. So many reasons. For instance if there are too many people in the room, it is difficult for individuals to make much of a contribution, with so many voices wanting to be heard. Almost always, in every meeting you can think of, there are too many items on the agenda.


Let’s look at the scenario. All meetings – no exceptions – are called because one person has an idea, a plan, a possible way forward, and needs to engage with the people (usually colleagues, and almost always because of the job titles they hold, rather than their relative meeting or collaboration skills) who can either help move it forward or approve it. Hold the thought that ideas and plans come before meetings, not out of them.


So ten people receive message notices to be in a conference room 10.00 to 11.00 on Thursday. The meeting takes place without two of those invited, everyone talks a lot – often at the same time – and the meeting ends with very little progress, to be resumed in a week or ten days.


I believe there is a better way, and it is called Mote. It comes back to ‘I’ and ‘We’. The person with the idea or plan should work it up as far as possible on the basis of ‘my idea is….’. Then they should engage with the one colleague they feel is most likely to be helpful in advancing the idea. This isn’t a meeting, it’s a work session. In due course the two colleagues will need to involve another person to make progress. And so on. But usually five people will do it, for all but the most complicated situations. The process is called the stepladder principle. No politics. No overtalking. No passengers. No time wasting. The progression from ‘I’ to ‘We’ is smooth. And now the team is ready to involve approvers and decision makers (if necessary) with a well-developed case. The Mote will be a proper meeting designed to lead to a decision. It should work.

More Than Words Can Say

Have you ever stopped to marvel at how much communication – and therefore how much persuasion – is non-verbal?

The cast list of other influencers – beyond words – is huge. Let’s start with two major stimuli in the business world – numbers and visual aids (diagrams, charts etc). We can look at it both ways. Either the figures and the visual aids are amplifying the words in a document or presentation, or the words are captioning the other elements.

Then there’s touch, smell, sound (obviously including music), visual (including film, photography, painting, sculpture, design, graphic design, illustration, landscape, buildings, interior design – and also beauty in all its forms), food, drink, entertainment, sport, violence, fear…..and of course sex.

That’s just a short list. Non-verbal communication also embraces body language, facial expressions

Bear this in mind when you are planning your next meeting – and hopefully it will be a Mote.

Ten Ways To Get More Out Of Every Working Day

  1. Start really early. Forget all that larks and owls stuff. Face it that larks rule the world and owls just try to keep up
  2. Don’t immediately say ‘no’. Make ‘I’ll think about it’ your default setting
  3. Get into the habit of looking things up and checking facts. The internet is a treasure house of information, facts and figures. Your brain is overloaded. Being right is a good habit, and it’s quite easily achieved
  4. Set achievable goals for every single day. Or one goal. Doesn’t matter. Write it down. Go for it
  5. Plan a bit further ahead. Always have your sights on something ambitious and exciting, and keep stoking the fire
  6. If you want to get something done, start small. The most efficient meeting is just two people
  7. Delay sending your emails. Go to the tools menu on MS Outlook. You can set a ‘Rule’ to defer delivery by up to 2 hours. No more embarrassing mistakes or hot headed notes
  8. Try not sending an email at all. Remember the old days. Nothing wrong with meeting someone or calling them
  9. Reconnect with one old friend a day. Doesn’t have to be a big deal. Just let them know you’re still around and interested in them
  10. Don’t go to meetings that produce no results and no decisions. We all know that six clever people in a conference room is no guarantee of a successful outcome. Go over to the Mote system

Wit And Wisdom

Wisdom is all very well, but a healthy of dollop of wit does no harm either. This is one of my core beliefs. When Reader’s Digest was a must-read, one of its most popular monthly features was a pot pourri of humour and jokes under the banner: ‘Laughter the best medicine’.

How sad that so many people, so many companies, so many agencies seem to believe that to be taken seriously you have to be relentlessly serious. It simply isn’t true. The judicious – and indeed natural – use of wit and humour can break down barriers and open doors. Just a few reasons:

  • Humour puts people at ease
  • It makes them want to work with you. And buy from you!
  • It relaxes, which often helps creative thinking
  • It makes you approachable, which builds trust
  • It makes people smile, which itself makes the conference room a happier place

It has been an easy learning for me in the world of advertising and communications – it makes you likeable and gives you stand out and differentiation, all at the same time.

Just look at award winning commercials and campaigns. How many of them make you smile, and appeal to your sense of humour? A lot. A disproportionate number.

So if wit makes the end product stand out and work better – and it often does – why not use wit alongside wisdom in the meeting process? Mote was invented to make meetings more effective, and also more user-friendly. In that regard healthy doses of humour will do no harm.

It’s funny how well funny works.

The Power Of Two

So wherever I am, there’s always Pooh,
There’s always Pooh and Me.
“What would I do?” I said to Pooh,
“If it wasn’t for you,” and Pooh said: “True,
It isn’t much fun for One, but Two,
Can stick together, says Pooh, says he. “That’s how it is,” says Pooh

AA Milne

Two people can achieve (almost) anything.

It is clear to me that a dynamic duo – is by far mankind’s most efficient grouping. Better balanced than even the most outstanding individual (few old sayings are as true as ‘two heads are better than one’). That is why I designed the Mote to be driven by two people, not a football team.

Of course we can always add experts – preferably one at a time in the style of the ‘Stepladder’ problem solving methodology. But the additional team members can – and should – leave the stage after they have been able to add value.

Leaving the two to conquer the world.

I Have Just Come Out Of A Fantastic Meeting

You are quite right. I made it up.

People simply don’t talk that way – largely because fantastic meetings are rarer than hen’s teeth.

Meetings get a really bad press, especially when you consider how much of our lives we spend in them. Here’s a fairly typical pronouncement, from an American humourist called Dave Barry, ‘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” ’.

My last writing project was designed to help people make better decisions in better ways. Decide was published last year. I became fascinated with the meeting phenomenon while researching and writing the book.As a result I am now working on a much more ambitious venture – a book to persuade organisations to run meetings in a completely different way. Not specifically companies and agencies in the marketing communications world. All companies. And everyone with any influence within those companies.

It is hard to spend decades in the world of work and not get very frustrated at the sheer futility and ineffectiveness of so many meetings. The one hour meetings that fill our diaries are supposed to move projects forward and aid decision making. But they generally don’t.

Too many meetings. Too many people around the table. Too many egos on display. Too little meeting technique – both from those leading meetings, and those asked to attend them. There’s also confusion about what is supposed to be going on. Are meetings to inform? To update? To lobby? To persuade? To discuss? To debate?

Or are meetings a process – part of the work involved in achieving a goal? In which case the end may be more important than the means.

And what about meeting protocols, style and manners? How important is it to encourage civilised behaviour as well as efficiency and effectiveness?

We have a controlled trial of Mote in progress to help us answer these questions and more. Mote involves making a whole range of radical changes to the conventional way we all run meetings. The economist Thomas Sowell said, ‘People who enjoy meetings should not be in charge of anything’. You can understand the sentiment. But if we can bring about a profound change to elevate both the performance of meetings and the degree of professional satisfaction for the participants, maybe we can make his comment out of date.

Could we have a fantastic meeting after all? With Mote, hopefully more often than not!

The Fewer The Better

It is true of the number of people in a meeting. It is equally true of the number of meetings in your day. And of the number of items on the agenda.

This is yet another phenomenon from Behavioural Economics. We have to be good jugglers (and women seem famously to be particularly good at it). But juggling comes a poor second to concentration on one meeting and one agenda item. It is hard to give your best in the 11.00 meeting, when you’ve scarcely recovered from the appalling 9.30. Not to mention the fact that you are supposed to making the controversial case for a 30% increase in spend in the 12.00-14.00 with the inedible sandwiches. Equally six agenda points is a lot to cover in an hour. The Mote agenda (we call it a motion) scarcely ever has more than one item to discuss. And three or four people in a Mote will use time much better than thirteen or fourteen in a big meeting.

Clever Clogs

Too many clever people around one conference table frequently cancel each other out.

Two people are more agile, and out-perform conference rooms full of clever people. Faux democracy has much to answer for when meetings of all the ‘right people’ fail to deliver.

The moment you see lots of chairs around a table in a meeting room, take time to reflect that the meeting problem has already started. All those egos. All those agendas. The attraction of speaking over listening. The influence of the loudest. The marginalisation of the quieter ones. Whereas a determined twosome can make dramatic progress – in moving a project forward, or towards a decision.

Clever is a good thing. But too much cleverness in one room? Take a one hour meeting with ten people. That’s an average of six minutes airtime each. You can only imagine the frustration! No wonder clever can slow things down. Clever clogs!