Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The meeting from hell

I read a survey recently that asked business people what they disliked most about work. 80% of them cited time wasting meetings as the bane of their existence. It seems a hatred of meetings is universal. And at the same time most of us are stuck with them. The thing is, if they're properly organised, meetings don't have to be so bad.

It is remotely possible that someone reading this blog could come to the conclusion that I have a negative attitude. Particularly about work. In fact, I enjoy my work most of the time. People piss me off, true. But that doesn't make me negative. That makes me a realist. Besides, how entertaining would it be to read about how happy I am every day?

I've been a Business Analyst for almost 12 years. This suggests I either like the work or I'm not very career driven. The answer is mostly I like being a BA. The usual career path is to move into Project Management and I've made it clear before that I think Project Management sucks. I'd rather be a BA where I get to do things than be a PM stuck trying to manage schedules and budgets.

It also makes it a little more interesting when people ask me what I do because my usual answer is "that depends on who's employing me." Depending on the nature of the contract, I might be involved in some early stage requirements gathering, researching options for new software or a website, putting together a tender, writing up Business Requirements and/or Functional Specifications or maybe coming in towards the end of a project to write user documentation and/or help with implementation.

One thing I'm frequently called upon to do is run meetings and/or workshops. This terrifies some people but I actually enjoy getting up in front of people. The videos I post here should give you some clue that I like to perform. When I'm planning sessions I usually look online for tips (Google is my co-pilot).

When I was doing such a search recently, I found one guide included on a number of UK government websites. It seems as though it was aimed more at community and political groups than corporate groups but it looked like there was some worthwhile information in there. The full guide ran to about 10 pages. As I worked my way through it, I started to notice a weird tone was developing.

It seemed to have been written by a passive-aggressive hippy.

The hippy side came out because there was a lot of touchy-feely, positive atmosphere, support everyone guff in there. But I suspect the author was not aware how much of their passive-aggressive side was leaking through. There seemed to be a paranoia about disruptive elements in the meeting along with a really punitive approach to dealing with them. Phrases like "watch body language”, “Note digressions and remind members to stay on task” and “Guide members who speak a great deal to be briefer," started to pop up.

And every time the author gave a suggestion for what to say to a troublemaker, the comment was always directed at a female. I’m sure the author would say they were simply being gender inclusive but I couldn’t help thinking there might be some… issues behind this.

Then we come to the part that really made me think the author was a hippy: make everything FUN! This isn't a completely terrible idea but I don't think it has to be binary choice between all fun all the time and complete drudgery. Plus, "fun" is a subjective concept. One person's fun is another person's hideous torture. And some of the suggestions provided went waaaay into trying too hard territory.

The hippy's central idea was that if you start each meeting with something fun, then everyone will rush to get to the meeting on time. After all, who wants to miss out on the FUN? I don't know how I've missed this in the past. For years now, my strategy has been to make meetings relevant, concise and as brief as possible. Clearly I'm talking out my arse.

Here's where I let the expert take over. I now present for your reading pleasure some verbatim extracts from "Ideas for launches and fun." Possibly followed by some bile filled editorialising from me.

  • Sing your name and have the group sing it back to you

Oh. My. Fucking. God. I stared at this suggestions for a full minute. Seriously. If I ever do this in a meeting, someone stab me in the fucking eye, please. Because I’ll sure as hell do it to anyone who sings their name at me.

  • Break into small groups and do a mime or skit about an agenda item

I cannot imagine a presenter who made this suggestion getting out of the room alive. I know I would be leading my group in a plot to murder the idiot.

  • Become someone else, mime it and have people guess

I would not be able to restrain myself if a presenter did this. I'd be shouting guesses like "You're a moron... You're an escapee from a mental institution... No, I've got it, you're a brain-damaged weasel!"

  • Sing and dance the song, the hokey-pokey

Personally, I'd lead a conga line straight out the door at this point.

  • Do a weather report on how you are feeling. “Sunny and warm. Cloudy with chance of grumpiness…”

I am Hurricane Katrina. You are New Orleans. Start swimming.

  • Dress up in a costume and make up a story about the history of an agenda item

Here's a tip from Mr Angry, kids. You can take this one to the bank. If someone sends you a meeting invitation asking you to bring along a costume, DO NOT GO!

  • Have everyone write their middle name on a piece of paper then try to guess what name belongs to whom.

I would conspire with the others so that everyone wrote “dildo” and then every time we’d guess it was the presenter’s middle name.

  • Have everyone write something about themselves nobody knows then try and guess who wrote what.

Again, I would conspire with the group. This time we would all write “I’m going to kill the presenter before the end of the meeting.” Each time the presenter read one out, we would all act really innocent. I'd love to see how the presenter's "fun" mood was going after about the third one.

So much for the fun. Another stellar piece of advice was "Praise people twice as much as you criticise them." My previous (and obviously misguided) strategy was to avoid criticism altogether whenever possible. But I like this equation. I look forward to going "Excellent point, Bob... I'm glad you brought that up, Bob... Bob, will you shut the fuck up already? We all hate you."

If anyone is actually looking for serious advice on running meetings, here's mine:

  • Plan it out
  • Know what you need to achieve
  • Set an agenda and stick to it
  • Set a time limit and stick to it - set another meeting for another time if there are still things to resolve at the end of the meeting
  • Make sure everybody knows ahead of time what's expected of them
  • Make sure the right people (knowledge holders and decision makers) are at the meeting

There are times when you need to get creative to keep people engaged, particularly with longer sessions. Anything longer than two hours needs serious planning and some variety. Actually, a better idea is to not run sessions longer than two hours. Whenever possible, follow the KISS principle (which, of course, stands for Keep It Simple, Shit-for-brains).

Cut the bullshit and people will thank you for it.

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