Re-learning how to meet

Digital interaction, unproductive meetings and cups of tea

In these past few months in which the pandemic forced many of us to work remotely, there has been an unprecedented peak of mediated meetings. In all types of organizations, no matter its size, having moved to working remotely overnight made it clear that there is something that happens within an office that cannot be completely replaced –at least not easily– with technological tools.

As an illustrative data point, the value of Zoom shares went from $68 to more than $470 in just 8 months, but the change is much more significant: we are seeing, in real time, the explosion of all kinds of video conferencing software, and a never before seen acceleration of the digitization of goods and services.

A clear enough example of this is that, in a meteorically short time period, the small store on the corner went from handling cash only transactions to charging via cell phones, using QRs and even accepting transfers.

Sadly and ridiculously, banks and notaries (among others) continue to demand, under some circumstances, printed documents and signatures by hand, making it indisputably loud and clear that digital transformation is much more a matter of attitude than a matter of budget. But hey, you can’t always get what you want.

Back to the wave of video meetings and meetings, a very strong trend that I have been noticing is that, in general, these mediated meetings are trying to imitate face-to-face meetings down to the smallest detail. A few days ago, in fact, I participated in a video call in which someone said “to get started, why don’t we go from left to right and introduce ourselves?”. There is no punchline.

I am forced to clarify that the term ‘meeting’ is an abstract noun; that is, it refers to an imaginary entity that is not capable of making decisions. In other words, when I say that ‘these mediated meetings are trying to imitate face-to-face meetings’, we have to understand that the meeting does nothing: it is the people who call, direct and participate in those meetings who seek to imitate in-person meetings in high fidelity.

To me, that makes as much sense as asking that streaming platforms mimic the applause you hear when watching a play at the theater. Or that e-readers were the same size as a page from The New York Times (600x400mm), and smelled of paper and ink.

But anyway, it is necessary to take notice of the symptom, and to attempt a diagnosis. We cannot simply say “it doesn’t make sense” and dismiss it, because the reality is that which, when we stop looking, doesn’t go anywhere. That mimicry of the face-to-face meeting is a symptom that there is something missing, something that we miss, something that calls for some sort of replacement. And, somehow, that forces us to discover that there is more to face-to-face meetings than merely the other person’s voice and their face. We may not know precisely what it is, but we cannot ignore the fact that we are missing something.

As my friend Juan says, it is always difficult to read what is happening while it is happening. Even so, and although we are still dead in the middle of all these changes, some voices manage to convey a refreshing amount of clarity. In my opinion, the greatest amount of sensitivity and good sense on how to accommodate the body –and the mind– to go through all this madness was a quote I read by singer, songwriter and actress Juana Molina:

We have to invent something else, adapt and figure out how to get around it. But what cannot be done is the same thing with something else.”

Along those lines of inventing something else and/or adapting things we’ve seen someplace else, I’ve gathered these 5 things you can implement today to begin transiting your meetings in a more productive –but also human– way. No longer trying to ‘do the same thing with something else’, but something else entirely:

1. Before scheduling a meeting, define its goal

To begin, it needs to be said that not all meetings are created equal. There are 1-on-1 meetings, status report meetings, hands-on meetings, feedback meetings, personal meetings. And we also have to remember that there are seminars, conferences, classes, talks, focus groups, interviews and many more that are, also, meetings. Each and every one of these meetings needs a goal. If there isn’t one, the meeting becomes its own goal, and that is a problem: with the exception of personal meetings with family and friends, meeting for the sake of meeting is a huge waste of time.

Our guiding question needs to be ‘why are we meeting?’, which goes hand in hand with ‘what has to have happened by the end of this meeting?’

Every meeting has a purpose, and that is what allows us to tell successful meetings apart from failed ones, as well as necessary meetings from those that are expendable. Spoiler alert: most meetings are expendable. Not because I say so: there are piles of studies to prove it; scientifically. But also, and infinitely more important: most of the meetings that we postpone, are necessary.

Take the time to define the goals of your meetings and, if it were to happen that you cannot set a goal, cancel the meeting or postpone it until you can.

2. Only invite those who have a critical role to reach that goal

Having already defined what you need a meeting for (if you really need it), it becomes easy to see that everything that has to do with the meeting will have to be geared towards meeting that goal. Who is attending, and what is going to be discussed, are factors that will only be defined in terms of meeting that goal.

So, invite only those who play a critical role in helping the meeting reach its goal. Meetings are like a boat: everything that is essential has to be there, because once you are in the water, there is nowhere to go to find necessary things; and everything that is not essential must be left out because it is weight that we cannot afford to carry.

If a person doesn’t have a critical role in getting the meeting to its destination, why would you invite them? You waste their time and unnecessarily overload the meeting with people. In case you need that person to be aware of what was discussed, you can send them a minute by email, and have them read it in their own time.

3. Only invite those who have autonomy to make decisions

Knowing that each person invited is critical for the meeting to be successful, and that this criticality is given by their ability to contribute to meeting the objectives, it is a good idea to make sure that each and every one of the people who go to the meeting have sufficient autonomy to make decisions about the issues to be discussed.

It makes no sense for a person to attend a meeting to take notes that they will then pass on to their superior. You can do that yourself, by email or by other means. On the other hand, if there are people in a meeting who do not have agency to make decisions, one must wonder why the person who does, and therefore should have attended the meeting, did not.

4. Make decisions

Since you defined goals, and invited people who have critical roles to advance towards those goals, and those people have agency to make decisions, make decisions.

Expressing points of view is not the goal of any meeting. There are many other means that serve for people to express their opinions, from memos, emails, social networks (internal or public), to billboards, forums and several others. But meetings are for making decisions.

Expressing opinions is useful if, and only if, it helps us make those decisions. However, you can encourage everyone to share their opinions and points of view before the meeting, to arrive at the meeting with clarity about context and perspectives, and to spend that time making decisions about it.

This is the #1 reason why meetings lead to new meetings: when the meeting is left to revolve around each person expressing their point of view, and no one in the meeting is in charge of getting the group to make decisions on the issues exposed, time runs out and nothing is achieved. Why do you think that causes a new meeting to be generated? Precisely because no decision has been made and we all know, consciously or unconsciously, that without having reached a decision, a new meeting instance will be necessary. The only thing that cuts this vicious cycle is to arrive at a definition, and definitions are the effect of decision-making.

5. Share the results

At this point, I know it will sound repetitive, but here we go anyway: since you defined goals for your meeting, and since you invited all the necessary people — and no one else— to make decisions that make progress towards those goals, share those advances publicly.

Put the results of the meeting, the topics that were discussed and the decisions that were made, into some shareable format (email, memo, document) and share it. This is the time to include those people who need to be in the know, but are not decision makers. Not only communicating those decisions helps make them easier to implement, but making the entire process visible helps everyone understand how and why each decision was made, and it reduces the chances of reopening a debate on issues that have already been discussed and on which decisions have already been made.

Now, none of these 5 things constitutes a revolution or a visionary discovery. If anything, these ideas, while good and probably useful, are quite mundane. They are much closer to what we call “common sense” than what we might consider a revelation.

The revolution has, effectively, been canceled.

Still, your meetings probably start later than they should, last longer than they should, and cost more than they should.

They amass to hours and hours each month, accumulated year after year, dedicated to endlessly arguing, almost never reaching a clear definition, and therefore not becoming actionable for the people involved.

What are we doing wrong?

The difficult thing about implementing any of this in your meetings is getting rid of what you have already been doing. Since we think and understand based on what we know, an interesting way to approach all this is through a traditional story that comes from Zen philosophy:

“A young man visits a Zen Master and tells him that he has traveled the world and has learned and mastered all religious philosophies, and that the only one left for him to learn is Zen. His request is precisely that: “Master, teach me all about Zen.

The Master gives no answer. Instead, he places an empty cup in front of the young man and starts pouring tea. When the cup is filled to the brim, he does not stop; he keeps pouring. The tea begins spilling onto the table. The young man gets upset and says: “Master, stop! You cannot keep on pouring, the cup is already full.

The Master finally smiles, stops pouring the tea, and says “Like this cup, your mind is full; how can I teach you about Zen if you don’t empty your cup first?

Ever since we had (you, me, all of us) our first meeting, we learned to have meetings that way. Not because someone taught us, but precisely because, in learning without teaching, we do not see the teacher, and it is more difficult to question the teacher when one does not see him.

The interesting thing here is that, even without teaching, there was learning. But unproductive meetings are not hereditary, nor is it the nature of meetings to be unproductive: we learned to have meetings one way, and we never unlearned it. However, if there was learning, there is the possibility of re-learning. First, however, it is necessary to empty our cup, and if we cannot find –or there is no motivation– to do so, we will most likely follow the path of least resistance and settle for the tea we already have in our cups.

That is why banks and notaries continue to insist that we do paperwork: the cost of emptying their cup still seems greater than the cost of keeping the tea they already have. One way or another, perhaps we should consider that the highest cost of all is that of not creating the conditions that force us to learn how to unlearn.

about Martin Pettinati:

I want you to communicate better. When I’m not communicating the amazing stuff that goes on at Manas.Tech, I write, talk, design and execute trainings on communication, marketing, presentations, public speaking, leading teams, and several other things, always within the field of communication, always focused on doing, and with the purpose of creating and sharing useful and applicable things.

I want you to communicate better. Marketing & Communications at Manas.Tech. I write, talk, design and execute trainings on communication, marketing, and stuff.