Thinking Together

Bright people love meeting other clever people. It’s one of the main reasons university is such fun. A great dinner party, a good lunch, even a drink after work with an old friend can have the same effect. Dialogue between two or more intelligent men and women generally produces interesting ideas, exciting opportunities, and if there’s a need, answers to problems.

But did I say ‘or more’? How many more? How many clever people do we want in any one room before more becomes less, there is a fight to be heard, and the meeting becomes counter-productive?

Having studied the meeting phenomenon, and what can go wrong when there are too many people around the table, I would recommend starting with two, adding maybe one or two more, and stopping there – at least for the first session of what may turn into a series of several. Meetings are the way we have settled on working together. Meetings are not basically for talking, or listening, or even debating. The purpose of strategic and dynamic meetings is to get things done – to make a decision, to turbo-charge a project, to solve a big problem, or realise a juicy opportunity.

What is the key dynamic in a dynamic meeting? Working together – yes. But even more important, thinking together. I believe it is by thinking together that we maximise mutual brainpower. When we talk enthusiastically about two heads being better than one, thinking together is what we are talking about. Encouraging children to think together is one of the pillars of the education system, and yet we easily forget how powerful this joint activity can be, and lapse instead into wall to wall words. The lust for communicating in public has a lot to answer for.

The next time you call an important meeting – one where a goal has to be achieved, and a result is imperative – let me suggest this approach.

‘Can you, Rachel and I find time to meet this week. Ideally for 90 minutes, but an hour might do it. The Pure Ptarmigan campaign clearly isn’t working. I know it won us the pitch, and the Link results were extraordinary. But no one is buying the stuff, and it seems to be a disaster in the on-trade. ‘Pure Ptarmigan’ is a useless bar call, because the bloody bird starts with a ‘T’, not a ‘P’. Far from quaking on its moor, Famous Grouse is laughing at us. We need to get together and think together about what we should do. I absolutely don’t want to fill a conference room with a dozen people who will tell us they knew it wouldn’t work, although they said nothing at the time. Nor will we learn anything from a couple more focus groups and a bit of quant. It will just confirm it isn’t working – and that we already know. Please just bring your brains. We will huddle. We will share our thoughts. We will think our way through this’.

This is David’s June blog entry for the Marketing Society.

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Meetings: what’s there to make a fuss about?

Quite a lot, actually. Ever since I let slip that I have been writing a book about a better way – a radically better way – to do meetings, reactions have varied from what I can best describe as supportive excitement (‘Oh, please yes. I’ll definitely buy a copy’) to jaded scepticism (‘There’s nothing anyone can do’).

Here are ten reasons why I believe that meetings are simultaneously the most dysfunctional item in the calendar, and the business activity most capable of being done in an infinitely superior way.

The five biggest problems first:

  1. It is estimated that wasted time in meetings costs around £50bn every year in these islands alone. That’s more than the defence budget. It’s a scandal, and a really good reason to take the issue seriously. That time does not have to be wasted.
  2. Organisations, companies, businesses allow their best people to spend at least 50% of their time in meetings, instead of doing proper work. How can I put this really simply? This need not happen, because many meetings are bound to be unproductive, and most of them are attended by far too many people.
  3. But it’s not just the organisations at fault. Many of the problems in meetings stem from bad etiquette and inconsiderate behaviour. This behaviour can and should be improved.
  4. The bigger the meeting, generally speaking the worse the behaviour? Why? Elementary psychology (and maths) tell us that the more people in the room, the less the opportunity for individuals to speak and contribute. Result: frustration, aggression, selfishness and the rest.
  5. Why don’t we arrange a meeting and invite all the stakeholders? Wrong! This is a very common mistake. If you are looking to manage change, or make a big decision, or drive a vital project, the last thing you want is all the stakeholders. They (or at least some of them) are the very people who will resist change, slow down the decision-making process, and hamstring the project. Don’t confuse efficiency and democracy. Getting things done necessitates keeping people informed, but you don’t have to do the two things simultaneously!

Now for the five steps to solve the meeting crisis – or at least the one with strategic and dynamic meetings, that solve problems, create opportunities, and drive innovation and growth:

  1. Accept that strategic meetings are like buses, stores in a Mall, or security guards. You need several to get the job done. Managing change, making decisions, and leading a successful project will require a series of meetings, not just one.
  2. Organise and orchestrate these meetings, like you would an event, or a team performance in say sport or entertainment. Don’t leave things to chance, to individual will, or to the fates. Manage the meeting with a hand-picked two person team.
  3. Start each meeting small, and keep it small by only inviting additional participants sparingly, and letting them go once they have made their contribution.
  4. Mandate a spirit of co-operation and good behaviour by insisting that each participant accepts the injection of a large dose of empathy.
  5. Keep crazy-busyness at bay, and promote focus, by insisting that participants prepare for meetings, follow them up, and never accept the booking of back-to-back meetings in their diary.

MOTE: The Super Meeting is going to be published in May. Till then, I can only suggest taking the five problems seriously in your business (and your life), and looking at how you might be able to do things better along the lines of the five tips above. Yes, and saving an extremely modest sum to purchase ‘Mote’ when it comes out!

This is David’s blog for the Marketing Society in April 2015.

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