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.