Meetings Revisited

Recently a friend observed, “Sometimes all we do in a meeting planned to produce useful output is just talk”.  It reminded me of an article I wrote a long time ago on the subject with some specific pointers.  They still sound useful after fifteen years.

WHY HOLD ONE AT ALL?

Start with a planning mind map or list. The first branch to place on your map is the reason for holding the meeting in the first place. Imagine the meeting as a finished entity. What happened? What results were accomplished? What are the next steps? If you don’t find immediate answers to these questions, consider why you are holding the meeting at all. There may be better ways to deal with the issue at hand. Perhaps you need to speak to one person, not an entire group. Perhaps the meeting could be better accomplished by a telephone conference call or an online conference, particularly if the participants live in different cities. If your main purpose is to convey information, it might be better to simply send a memo.  If you are making an important announcement, why not throw a party? Before you call the meeting, decide the appropriateness of holding it at all.

SET THE STAGE

If you are going to proceed, compare a meeting to a theatrical presentation. There is action in three parts of the theater, — backstage, main stage and in the lobby following the show. The backstage effort, — the gathering of the props, the rehearsal of the scene, the preparation of the program are going to determine the overall success of the performance.  Start your visual map with a branch that includes the participants. Follow by mapping the agenda items. Put them down as fast as they come to you in random order and get them all down on the page.  Look at which items are simple and straightforward, which are controversial,  and which involve the whole group.  Look at who should report on the various issues and who might present the topics.

Now it is time to order this raw material and put it into a clearer order and time frame. Decide on the duration of the meeting. Confirm who needs to attend.  Decide on the order of the items on the agenda.  It is well to warm up on non-controversial items and place the most contentious issue in the middle. It is also a good idea to follow the controversial issue with a neutral one, or deliberately delay decisions on the items following the controversial issues, so that opponents won’t use the remainder of the meeting to seek revenge for past action and kill each other off.

Decide on the resources that you will need for the meeting. Do you need a projector or flip chart? Do you need background papers or other references?  Insofar as possible, send the agenda and its attached documents to the participants well in advance of the date.  Encourage participants to read all reference materials in advance.  Otherwise you are going to convene a meeting of readers, whose faces will never rise during the meeting because they are buried in reference documents. How can there possibly be any useful contribution on any issue if the meeting is the first time people know anything about it?

Now it is time to move to center stage. Choose your meeting room carefully.  If possible, get a room with good natural light. Pay attention to ventilation and temperature because these are vital to the energy of the people attending the meeting. It is important to bar interruptions. Deactivate the phone in the room and ensure cell phones are in a bucket in the centre of the table..  Place a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door.

Provide the proper materials.  Make sure that any additional printouts and reference materials are available for each participant. Have a flip chart with markers of the appropriate size at the ready. If you really want to stimulate the participants, provide them with bright markers and highlighters. If money is no object, equip the room with an electronic white board.

ON WITH THE SHOW

“I’ve been on a calendar, but never on time.

— Marilyn Monroe

Start the meeting promptly.  Don’t penalize those who arrived on time by waiting for the latecomers.  Don’t interrupt the proceedings to acknowledge the latecomers and bring them up to date. You’re simply reinforcing their tardy behaviour and making it acceptable.

If you are the chairman, it is your responsibility to control the process.  Your meeting agenda  is a constant reminder of the material that you have to cover. You will need to worry less about the talkative participant who will have always plenty to say when you have the big picture in front of you. If you are smart, you may have already asked the most garrulous or the most bothersome member of the group to take notes. Balance participation by inviting the quieter ones to comment. Often their contributions will be more worthwhile than those of the chatty types. Summarize the proceedings as you go. Emphasize the positive and show appreciation for all contributions.

MAP THE MINUTES

Use the briefest possible format outlining results – avoid summarizing the discussion unless points made will be useful at a later date.  What is to be done? Who will do it? When will it be done? Don’t provide any more content than necessary.  You want participants to spend their time on the necessary follow-up, not on reading.

BE YOUR OWN BEST CRITIC

Evaluate each meeting.  What went right? What went wrong? Who participated? Who was silent throughout? What feedback did you receive? Be prepared to spend time following up with participants who have concerns arising from the meeting. Be prepared to hear from those who said little during the meeting because something was probably upsetting them.

Last, but not least, keep good records.  Visual maps provide excellent recall of what happened and can be reviewed quickly. If you have a number of memos and minutes for an organization, a committee or a department, consider keeping the documents in a three ring binder rather than in flat files. That way it will be easier to retrieve the documents you need.

THE SHOW MUST GO ON

  The last meeting’s minutes always provide the starting point for the next.  Start the cycle by reviewing your previous map agenda and minutes and see where you stand on the issues which were addressed. Some matters may have been delayed and need to get back on the agenda.  Some need review. Some persons need to be commended for their achievements.  Others need to be reminded of reports that should be made. Using this process as your planning tool will really get your show on the road.

Different perspectives

Have a look at the cube above. Now look again and see if you can see it from a different perspective.  Most people can – but not see both views at the same time.  It’s lucky we can still do this with the cube because as political animals Americans seem to have lost it.

It gets worse.  Presidents and newscast hosts get involved in slanging matches and start competing for the “Bully of the Year” award.  People become very self-righteous for different reasons and with different reactions.  Some of us have high expectations of appropriateness and when we don’t see it, we become outraged.  Others follow the Twitterverse for its entertainment value.  Values are clearly in play.  Some feel discouraged, others feel helpless.  It’s one thing to deal with a surly adolescent or screaming child at home.  It’s another when you’re dealing with a leader of the free world.

As Tom Friedman observed recently in a New York Times article, “I fear we’re seeing the end of ‘truth’ — that we simply can’t agree any more on basic facts. And I fear that we’re becoming Sunnis and Shiites — we call them ‘Democrats’ and ‘Republicans,’ but the sectarianism that has destroyed nation-states in the Middle East is now infecting us.”

It’s more than disagreeing on facts. We seem to have graduated to disagreeing on values. How can people who have so much common history seem to be living on different planets?  The clue may lie in how we determine values as much as we do facts.  While even expertise is distrusted these days, a bit of expertise might now come in handy.  I turn to Jonathan Haidt and his book, The Righteous Mind.

Haidt’s premise – that we are intuitive first and rational second – has much in common with Nobel prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman’s in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow.  Haigt as a social psychologist framed this concept in an earlier book, The Happiness Hypothesis, using the analogy of the mind as a rider on an emotional and instinctive elephant.  He sees moral judgment based more on more on intuition than on conscious reasoning; it is automatic.  If we want to change other peoples’ minds, he says, we talk to their elephants.  It is through relationships with others not our arguments that different points of view have a chance of making an impact.  There is more than one way of looking at things and if you return to the original image and looks at it long enough, you can see it in two different ways.

After in-depth  research on moral thinking, Haidt has identified these moral foundations arising out of different cultures and historical traditions but now almost universal in presence – if not in emphasis:

  • Care: Ability to “feel the pain” of others, to show a nurturing kindness. The opposite is harm
  • Fairness: it can be interpreted in more than one way- equal treatment for all or proportionality.  The opposite is cheating.
  • Loyalty: our ability to form groups and put the needs of the group first. The opposite is betrayal.
  • Authority; respect for leadership and traditions. Its opposite is subversion.
  • Sanctity; respect for the physical body and the need to keep it pure and clean. Its opposite is degradation.
  • Liberty; individual freedom and hatred of bullying and domination  Its opposite is oppression.

It gets interesting when you start to apply these foundations to politics. Haidt notes that Democrats and Libertarians are strong on the first two and Libertarians especially on the last one – while Republicans value all six – giving politicians more road maps in how to appeal to voters. The “facts” may matter a good deal less to the elephant than the emotional response they arouse and we see lots of that going on right now.

I’ve also been reminded of another book whose title seems prescient – Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve, published after his death.  A rabbi and psychotherapist, Friedman served as an advisor to six US presidents and it would be interesting to think what he would have to say to the current one.  Long before the current turmoil, be saw America as overcome by anxiety.  Both presidents and parents need to understand different roles as leaders.  I have zero confidence that the current leader would take Friedmans’ advice, but it might have some usefulness for the rest of us.  There’s room for more than one leader among us.

The leader’s role, Friedman says, is to be a non-anxious presence – to maintain one’s own integrity when facing sabotage – which any rise to power will automatically bring.  The real job is to maintain a sense of self while at the same time remaining connected to the opposition.  The very time one is under attack is the time not to react by hitting back in the same way.

Any emotional relationship involves a triangle. It can be three people – any parent has seen how the game plays out among mom, dad and teenager – or any two people or groups with an issue in which they disagree.  In an earlier work, Generation to Generation, Friedman explores how earlier generations become part of our triangles even after their deaths. Friedman notes that we are all part of multiple triangles simultaneously involving our jobs, our parents, our significant others, our finances, our health – and even our vacation preferences.  Three levels of government present another set.

Any triangle is a recipe for high anxiety – so the ones we are dealing with right now a perfect storm. In human terms, trying to change the relationship of the other sides of the triangle hardly ever works.  All of us, I suspect are trying to be more responsible than the other players. That doesn’t bring a solution – what it does bring is stress.  Anxiety is contagious and we are in the midst of an anxiety epidemic.

What to do?  Friedman would say –

  • Self-differentiate. The only person’s behaviour we can change is our own.
  • Maintain a sense of humor and be playful. If this were a play or a novel, the modern scene would win prizes for farce of a very high order.  The fact that it is happening isn’t so great – but life is long and things change.
  • Focus on personal strengths and do what one can to enhance them. Let other people work on theirs.
  • Stay in touch with what’s going on. There is a tendency to want to hide under a rock, but we can’t.
  • Be honest. Speak your piece but don’t fall into reciprocal slurring.
  • Question beliefs. Haidt notes that there is a difference between “What can I believe?” and “What must I believe?”
  • Live in the real world – not just the digital one – liars and cheaters are easier to spot there.

I like a quote from a recent memoir Safe Passage, by Ida Cook.  She and her sister helped many Jewish families escape the ravages of the second world war before it started.  She notes that when the war began, her 70-year-old father told the family that he was going to enroll as a stretcher bearer.  His wife replied that he was more likely to be on it than carrying it.  One of the sisters was worried about her father’s silence and projected that his feelings were hurt.  She said, “We think it is fine for you to want to be a stretcher bearer, Dad, even if mother thinks it is impractical”.  His reply would have gladdened Ed Friedman’s heart. He said, “I don’t care in the least what any of you think so long as I do what I think is right”.

We can stop being outraged.  We can stop being entertained.  We can stop expecting others to change.  We can stop being tired of foolishness.  We can start working on our own integrity and acting on it. We can also recognize that there is more than one perspective on the right thing –  giving some the right to emphasize some more than others and follow our own.

 

A different take on leadership

This past week I attended a meeting relating to the roll out of a strategic plan. The agenda was  to review the requirements for leadership and leadership training.  The context was for a mainline church denomination but some of the discussion could apply more broadly.

Several participants had been asked to research and bring  leadership concepts and common key words emerged for leadership roles.  Words like “mediating”, “perfecting”,  offering” and “blessing” appeared in one report.  In another the author had been fond of the letter “C” – and used nouns like “character”, “calling”, “competence” and “community”.  “Servant” leadership was also on the table.

My own contribution came from a longer paper I wrote some years earlier and I focused first on changes in  world view, vision and mission, structural change, personal characteristics and personal development.  My key words echoed some of the others – “disicipline”, “humility” and  “learner”.  I was also strong on “collaboration” rather than “hierarchy” even though we are still working within a hierarchical structure. But leader still assumes followers and someone has to take the first step.

The most interesting submission was a summary of a work by Ed Friedman entitled A Failure of Nerve. The writer of the summary had limited himself to 500 words and boiled down the role of the leader to a non-anxious presence.  We spent little time on Friedman’s idea in the meeting, but I had read his book some years before and its mention whetted my appetite to return to it.

A Failure of Nerve  was compiled after Firedman’s death in 1996 by his daughter and students and has been recently reissued.  It is timely. Friedman was a rabbi and psychotherapist by training and as well as founding a successful congregation he served as advisor to six US presidents as well as to many senior church leaders and individual clients. Even before his death he saw that America in the nineties had become a frightened society, fearing change and seeking safety as opposed to the spirit of adventure of its early explorers and founders.  He’s strongly critical of this stance and challenges us to change our mental models.

Friedman is often caustic and witty – and several readers have collected maxims that represent the substance of his thinking.  Here are some that apply to leadership:

  • Leadership can be thought of as a capacity to define oneself to others in a way that clarifies and expands a vision of the future.
  • ‘no good deed goes unpunished; chronic criticism is, if anything, often a sign that the leader is functioning better! Vision is not enough.
  •  Leaders need “… to focus first on their own integrity and on the nature of their own presence rather than through techniques for manipulating or motivating others.”
  • Leadership through self-differentiation is not easy; learning techniques and imbibing data are far easier. Nor is striving or achieving success as a leader without pain: there is the pain of isolation, the pain of loneliness, the pain of personal attacks, the pain of losing friends. That’s what leadership is all about.here

Much of where Friedman is coming from is defining church congregations and enterprise units as  family systems, a concept developed fully by therapist Murray Bowen. It posits that we call rational  in congregations and enterprises is always framed by the emotional responses learned in our personal birth and extended families.  Those families and tribes, like all systems, seek equilibrium.  When things get tense, it’s likely that learned behavior in earlier systems are in play.  When things are going well, Friedman says, expect sabotage.

The remedy is for the leader to develop self-differentiation rather than to try to persuade or motivate others to change.If a non-anxious presence is required it assumes there is already anxiety and conflict in the room.  But it is working on one’s own development that allows others to learn by example – and take responsibility for their own development.

There is much more to  learn in Friedman’s approach – and that will be a feature of future posts.

Leading

The orchestral conductor, Benjamin Zander, is a frequent business speaker and famous for his TED talk. now viewed by more than eight million people.  Conductors are sometimes viewed as the last of the great dictators.  Zander is different.  He had an epiphany some years ago when he realized that the conductor of an orchestra plays a different role.

The insight transformed his conducting and his orchestral musicians immediately noticed the difference.  Now he’s a leader who asks for input in the form of written comments at every rehearsal.  He understands that the musicians’ skills and experience enhance his own.

His gifts as a teacher are remarkable too and they are now shared through masterclasses for all of us on YouTube.  The students perform with technical brilliance before he enters in with a consistent message –  it is time to relax and let go of the kind of competitive excellence their preparatory training has provided and instead relate to their audience.  Transformation happens before our own shining eyes.  (This sample and others are well worth watching now or at a later time. To enjoy it to advantage if your time or tolerance is limited, listen a bit to the beginning and move the arrow to 9:00 minutes and watch some hair pulling – not a conventional teaching technique – but see how effectively it works in creating a totally different kind of performer).

Zander’s passion is for introducing classical music to those unfamiliar with it and he does so with incredible skill and experience in making audiences and performers connect.  It’s a worthwhile example of how a leader inspires and transforms performance.

Circles

I attended two meetings on the same day last week – one in the morning and another in the early evening.  There were some common participants – though most were not.  I was struck by how the space and configuration of both gatherings differed and affected how things went.  The key issue was how the space was used.

The first meeting is a regular gathering that assembles around a round table.  There are now so many attendees that we have to move back from the table in order to let everyone in and the circular table functions only as a place to hold coffee cups and refreshments. The meeting has a chair and a common discussion agenda known in advance. Participants can see one another well. The leader starts informally with a question and invites responses.  These are varied and certainly not unanimous, but what marks them is intelligent  speaking and deep listening.  We retain our own points of view but grow by learning from others.  There is high trust developed over years of regular meeting – but it is also possible to invite new members without appearing to be a closed shop.  In fact a newcomer joined us this week, participated, and remarked at the end, “I’ve been looking for a group like this for some time.”

The second meeting was in an a room resembling a rectangular parlor – filled with random furnishings – some sofas and wing chairs and a few dining chairs.  The meeting chair was at one end of the room. There was a small topic list on a display board.  Participants could not see each other well though hearing was not a problem. The dynamic was quite different, partly because it was a newer group, but also because the shape didn’t support the common purpose of moving forward and collaborating.  The shape of the room also didn’t allow participants to see others’ faces.

Others who attend  might have different observations than mine.  But circles go way back in how people gather.  First nations people meet in sacred circles and use symbols like a talking stick to signify respect for and attention to the speaker.  I’ve sat at many rectangular meeting tables through the years as well as being in many classrooms.  What these room shapes share is a different dynamic in the relationship between the leader and the participants. One year on the first day of teaching, I asked the back row of the high school class (all boys, naturally) to come up and take the front row while everyone else was to move one place back.  I then said – “Just, kidding, – but I’ve got your number”.  Similarly even on a small board, the not-so-loyal opposition sat as far away from the chair as possible and made her life difficult in every meeting by opposing pretty much everything  even when the all had a common purpose.

Space and setting matter.  Both are worth consideration before you convene your next meeting.  As a colleague observed recently,  when people say that meetings are a waste of time, they really mean Bad Meetings.

Possibility revisited

When I started this blog – which followed one created many years earlier – the tagline was suggested by a book by Rosamund and Benjamin Zander – entitled The Art of Possibility.  I first met Ben Zander on a TedTalk, where he introduced a bunch of techies to classical music.  The Talk has still maintained one of the highest ratings ever – over two million views. Their earlier book showed how both he and his wife have inspired many to bring out the best possibilities latent within themselves.

The new book, Pathways to Possibility, is even more explicit. Written by Rosamund Stone Zander, a family systems therapist, it resonates with another of my favorites in the field – Ed Friedman.  She unpacks the reality that most of our negative aspects arises from our own experiences as children, and unless we recognize and re-frame such experiences, they play into everything that we do as adults.  We can either recast them as memories – things in our past that no longer have control over us – or see them as part of our continuing story and growing maturity.  Her message is simple but profound.  I have seen this in action when another practitioner in the field helped a woman re-write a negative story and it changed her whole attitude in an instant.

Reading this book – and watching Ben Zander coach his music students on YouTube are excellent lessons for anyone who wants to initiate change – as another wise colleague has said – we have to be the change that we want to see happen.  Try these!

FIVE FUNERALS

That’s how many I have already attended – so far – in 2017.  It’s characteristic of my time of life when friends or their spouses pass away.  All these so far have been males. In some cases, I knew the wives better as classmates or volunteer colleagues. In my own family, it has meant a lot when people turn up for a visitation or a funeral so I try to return the kindness.

Of course for most,  funerals are passé these days.  Instead people gather at the golf club or a bar, have a few rounds of drinks and share memories and stories.  There is validity in this – but I wonder if that marking of a death glves the kind of closure that a traditional funeral does –  with its words of comfort, words of inspiration for those left behind, challenges to carry forward the best qualities of the beloved people we have lost.

The most recent funeral yesterday was the most inspiring of the five. The setting was a cathedral dating back to 1833.  People were lining up to get in an hour and a half before the service started and they were smart to do so because every seat was taken.  Among the guests of honour were a former governor General of Canada, the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario and its Premier.  There were dignitaries from other denominations, an endless procession of robed bishops and clergy. And what they all had in common was love for a man named Terence Finlay – but who always said on meeting anyone new, “Just call me Terry”.  In his life of nearly 80 years he had many titles – husband, father, grandfather, uncle, aunt, Anglican priest, parish rector, Bishop, Archbishop – and after retirement,  interim priest while parishes looked for a new one, chaplain to other bishops, and a member of a commission designed to heal the hurts and injustices of one of the most worst violations of his Anglican church – the role in its residential schools.

Terry was working up to Christmas of 2016 and told everyone that being back in parishes was something he loved.  I saw him in early January when he was giving a final blessing at the first funeral I attended in the year.  Soon after came the news of a serious diagnosis – and messages of decline, but always coupled with “He’s still cheerful”.  The timing of his death, while expected still came as a surprise.

We were told he had planned his own funeral.  At the visitation the night before, his widow told me, “It won’t be like anything that you are used to.”  She was right.  The long entry procession took place to the sound of a drum and a smudging ceremony with the singing of a mournful loud chant sung by a woman with a stunning voice.  Before that we had heard a jazz pianist play “It’s a Wonderful World”.  While the funeral liturgy followed a traditional pattern, the choices of hymns and readings were Terry’s own favorites – all inspiring and positive.  It was poignant to hear something that contrary to the prediction was totally familiar – arrangements by a musician who was a dear friend and whose funeral was number three in my 2017 attendance – among those arrangements, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelluia. We all joined in its chorus as the long procession departed.

Terry had time for everyone.  One woman summed it well when she simply said – “He was so kind and he always had time for everybody”. At one time he visited a social centre dealing with sex workers.  One of the ladies loved his purple ecclesiastical shirt and wanted one just like it.  He named the store and said, Just tell them Terry sent you”.  He was funny,  remarkably humble and not afraid to admit his mistakes and say how sorry he was.

When he asked the Primate (Senior Bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada) to preach the homily several weeks before, he said, “Everything is all arranged.  It will be lovely and I won’t have to do anything but just lie there and enjoy it.”

He did – and we did too. A fitting end to a long life well lived.  Rest in peace.