On Meetings… 

Industrial practices have forged new and creative ways to waste people’s time. Within these practices however, meetings are the most excellent example that I can think of, in which anthropological insights about people and behaviour are especially pertinent. For those not in the know, here’s a breakdown for you:

Agendas

A document is circulated by email, sometimes early, sometimes late. For some, it’s a war cry, for others it causes a rush of panic as incomplete actions are called to account, and yet for others, it’s ‘highlight, drag into ‘Inbox 2017’ folder, dump it there, highlighted in bold as its never opened’. For me? The Agenda is the most exciting document to hit my ‘Inbox’ all day. I open it, hit the ‘Print’ button, ensuring I’m using double-sided copies on the B and W printer, just to make sure I’m being green. I race around to the photocopy room to pick up my freshly minted promise of focused interactions to come…

I LOVE agendas, it’s the only time people are frank and honest about their intentions at work. We should have agendas for dates, or family interactions too, maybe business could make better use of them in customer engagement …. At work the agenda theoretically sets the tone, the discussion points, the action plan, the tidy up of unfinished business, it’s a rally cry to get the right people together, at the right time, in the right room – sometimes virtually – to talk about really important stuff, the stuff that only THIS group of people are accountable for. It’s a material form, a document that sets out a future, anticipated history, an account of the intended interactions of this group.

So far, so good, but I hear you say, “What about hidden agendas?” Well, this comes after, usually at the meeting itself, but more on this later.

Along with the Agenda come the ‘Minutes of the Last Meeting’. Just make sure you read them, whether you were there or not. Many times history is reconstructed by those who kept the records, and writing up the Minutes of Meetings is not different in any way at all.

Before Meetings

Once the Agenda has been sent out, as an anthropologist at work it’s time to get your walking shoes on. Slip off the heels and pull on the runners, it’s time to walk this agenda through its paces. Take your Agenda and scan the names on the ‘Attendees’ list. This is where the hard work starts. Before ANY meeting you have to have the Before Meeting, otherwise you’ll never figure out what the real agenda is, what the hidden agenda is, or what the alternative agenda for the meeting is. And I lie, it’s not a Before Meeting, but usually a series of Before Meetings, and they typically happen on the day of the meeting, usually in the morning with a coffee in hand, and typically in your own or other people’s offices, the tea room, corridors, or on your way to or from somewhere else. Be prepared!

Before Meetings are often strategic, and you have to work these both up and down the power hierarchy in your workplace. These meetings are war councils (counsels?) where you offer up strategic information to your coworkers in exchange for similarly strategic information from them. This is where you strengthen your alliances, forge tentative new ones, and discard any strategies that don’t work well for you anymore. It’s a lion’s den out there… Personally, I love the flurry of activity that constitutes a Before Meeting, the rush of shoe leather up and down corridors and the unusual sight of closed doors with catches of whispered conversations on the other side.

From my experience, many, many issues that are formal agenda items for a meeting are determined, staffed and finalised at these Before Meetings. The formal meeting itself is merely the record-keeping aspect of the group itself. There is nothing that comes up on an Agenda that hasn’t already been seriously worked up, thought about, strategised, budgeted, planned and blueprinted, unless it’s come up in ‘Other Business’, but I’ll get to that too…

The Meeting

The Meeting itself can be an anticlimax if your workplace has been effective at the Before Meetings. You probably already recognise that Meetings sometime have the sense of the theatrical about them, that people have not only learned their lines, but rehearsed them at length. From my experience, it doesn’t really matter where you sit either, as people will align themselves consciously or unconsciously with people either like themselves, or with those that they wish to be aligned with. It’s so obvious.

At the Meeting, ask yourself:

  • Is there enough fresh air in here?
  • When should I pour everyone a glass of water?
  • Who shall I sit opposite?
  • Is there anything new happening here that wasn’t anticipated before the meeting?
  • Has someone taken a different position to that expressed at the Before Meetings? Why?
  • Does someone need to show themselves puffing up their chest in front of the others?
  • Do you need to support them?
  • Are there any issues flagged by the Before Meetings that haven’t been addressed yet?
  • Is anyone in trouble? Do they need an ally now?
  • Is someone writing down any and all decisions made?

And as a model of excellent self-care, limit your involvement to less than an hour and then excuse yourself; you can set an alarm if you have to… You can also make the exclamation, “Oh look! We’ve only got x minutes left for our meeting/before lunch/before we go home/before the coffee cart comes/Armageddon”

Other Business

This is such a great meeting strategy, because if you think about it, meetings are very, very controlled but this little category here is the fireworks package isn’t it? After all, ANYTHING can come up here. And the beauty of the Other Business category is that, like much of real life, it’s unplanned for, unanticipated, a surprise and has to be dealt with now anyway. I love this category. I live for a meeting with Other Business and anticipate the call for “Has anyone got anything they’d like to raise that’s not been dealt with on the Agenda?”

My advice to anthropologists in business is to make use of this part of meetings as best you can. I’m not going to go through a formal process of how to do this, just to highlight the benefits of getting an item up for discussion at a formal meeting without being censored beforehand, and Other Business presents this opportunity to you to do just that. There are other added benefits of raising issues here:

  • There is less gate-keeping of new ideas presented here
  • It gets minuted and dealt with formally next time there’s a meeting
  • As it’s last minute, you’re not likely to get a well-considered oppositional force
  • You get to flag an issue without having to do a full presentation, but get the opportunity to think about, and work up an idea with consultation ready for the next meeting
  • If you can’t get an item on an Agenda, try to get a variation through here

Minutes

Just make sure that this is NOT your job. If you’re an Anthropologist, it’s impossible to keep Minutes because you’re far too into “He said…” “She said…”. Do yourself a favour and get someone else to take them. As a matter of policy, if you’re taking Minutes you’re usually strategically positioned outside the core business of meetings. So if you don’t want to be in that position, don’t offer! And remember, Minutes are NOT fieldnotes…

The After Meeting

If you’ve been paying attention to your fieldwork lectures, then you knew this was coming… This often starts even as you’re exiting the Meeting Room and walking back to your desk. It’s a bit like the debrief after the game in the change room, the rush of power after a well-delivered lecture (it’s a thing), everyone’s still hyped up from the Meeting (or desperate to get away, but that’s another thing)… there’s still chatter and this needs to be behind closed doors, often with the same people from the Before Meetings.

As you can see, the reality of meetings exist in the Before Meetings, where agendas are set, positions are taken and alignments are made. The Meeting itself exists only to serve as the formal aspect, the playing out of the plan determined beforehand. And the After Meetings similarly are where key players touch base to ensure that the plan was executed appropriately, or if otherwise what to make of a new trajectory.

After Meetings are usually full of phrases like:

  • “Why are there never any cream biscuits?”
  • “That was awful/great/predictable/a surprise…”
  • “Why is s/he allowed to chair meetings?”
  • “Oh my God, s/he goes on and on…”
  • “Can you believe what s/he said about… ?”
  • “Well, that was new!”
  • “There was nothing new!”
  • “How are we going to … ?”
  • “This is going to be hard/terrifying/not likely/great…”
  • “How are we going to find the time/fund/staff/produce/deliver/just substitute x, where x = the impossible… ?”
  • “Who knew?”
  • “Where did they get that idea from…?”
  • “Do they have any idea about what’s needed at the coalface?”
  • “That’s it, I’m checking the job ads right now…”

In this brief blog I haven’t dealt with other aspects of meetings, some of which I did promise to address. Don’t forget to pay attention to daydreaming and paying attention when it really counts; observations of other people, especially who’s looking at who and the exchange of non-verbal signals; group dynamics: see if you can identify and analyse these; power plays and lastly, pay attention to making the invisible visible: unspoken agendas – see if you can identify these. As anthropologists we’re full of people skills, you just need to be reminded how to apply these outside of traditional anthropological field sites.

Now, where are those Attachments?

Image credit: Pixabay

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2 thoughts on “On Meetings… 

  1. Andrew Bolger says:

    On minute taking and participant observation: obviously bona fide participants in an organisation, with too much work of their own, will try to avoid being lumbered by minute taking. But if you are some sort of outsider – or in my case, an insider sticking my research beak into parts of the organisation that otherwise should not have been my business- taking the minutes can give you an ‘in’ and it helps stop you talking too much. As you say minutes are not field-notes, but field-notes can be turned into minutes, and, of course, the relation between talk at the meeting, the minutes and how minutes are used provides a rich vein for ethnographic reflection.

    Like

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