May 3, 2009

Tragic Meetings

At the Smithsonian Storytelling Conference, Seth Kahan spoke from experience about "The Tragedy of the World Bank Meeting." He defined such tragic meetings as possessing these traits:
  1. You could predict the outcome of the meeting
  2. The content delivered at the meeting was so dumbed down that conflict and robust discussion was killed.
Ask yourself, What is going to happen at this meeting? If you seem to know the answer, then, why indeed, hold the meeting? Perhaps there is a better way in which to communicate the outcome.

Ideally, the question becomes, What do you want to learn? How might you elicit that information?

Sometimes, holding a meeting is not the answer. Sometimes, encouraging an entirely different kind of conversation is the answer.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you,Thaler. Meetings are a core ritual in today's work world. Everyone is trying to figure out how to do them better. There is this temptation to think, 'if only I follow this easy-to-understand guide, my meetings will once again become useful, under control, relevant, well-organized.'

    But, people don’t work that way. We are inherently messy. Anyone who has ever been tasked with leading a change initiative knows that conversations are difficult to map, people respond to new ideas and questions in ways that are not rational, guided by emotions and unvoiced concerns.

    Yet, it is through interaction, conversation mostly, that we share our ideas, decide what they mean, and build the understanding that ultimately guides our behavior.

    So, meetings are not to be given up on. They are extremely important. And learning the art of running a meeting (whether or not you are in charge) is a well-rewarded venture.

    Yes, there were meetings at the World Bank that did a poor job of engaging the professionals who work there and effectively dealing with the complexities of the issues. But, in my experience, there were solutions that arose there as well and I don't want to overlook that.

    New forms developed that engaged people in social networks in the mid-90s.

    It was during that time that Steve Denning's Knowledge Management initiative emerged, of which I was a part. As a matter of course, we dealt in meetings. In fact, we went after them with a hunger to learn and hear from as many points of view as possible.

    We identified all the people who were major players and contacted them regularly. We convened those who understood and supported what we were up to, our evangelists. We met with directors and project managers who had the most to gain from our ideas.

    We brought in key players like the World Bank Publisher whose participation could make or break some of our most important efforts.

    We created working groups. We did dog and pony shows. We met with clients. We visited other agencies that were doing what we were trying to do and brought them in to visit us. We met with business gurus like Peter Senge.

    We even met regularly and often with our detractors. We met with everyone, everywhere, at every opportunity. We lived in a river of conversations that never stopped.

    The dialogue, like a river, spread and flowed to parts unimagined and permeated the tiniest crevices until everything was wet with new ideas, innovation. Everywhere we went people were thinking about Knowledge Management, what it meant to them and their work, how they could become involved and the benefits it could bring to their worlds.

    The power of the transformation was unnerving, awesome. It travelled so fast that it often reached where our little team was going long before we did.

    So, what made the difference between these meetings and those others? It was the intent behind the conveners, to have candid conversation and reveal solutions, even as situations were difficult and complex. The desire to listen was paramount, and the response of the participants to engage constructively in dialog made all the difference.

    So, the World Bank also provided some of the best examples of social engagement. It was a place of seeing the challenges and those who rose to meet them.

    I have learned in the process that there is tremendous variety possible in meetings and this has inspired me to create new forms, some of which you experienced at the conference like JumpStart Storytelling. It was specifically designed to accelerate collaboration. More on that can be found here:

    Thanks for raising the issue!



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