Monday, March 08, 2010

Meeting snark

Yes, the article in the Chronicle on "The Art of Meeting" is basically a solid "how not to host fucked up meetings" primer. But it ignores many of the lessons that I have learned about REALLY managing faculty, staff, and students in meetings. So below, I offer my snarky comments on Russell Powell's article, in essence, offering my own down and dirty, how-to guide for meetings that don't piss people off or make them want to scream at the top of their lungs or cry.

1. Plan ahead.  Russell notes that you should send out materials to people on the committee in a timely way--so they have a chance to read them before they come to the meeting. Yeah, I agree that is a great idea. I would advise that you plan to send it more than once, make copies for everyone to look at when we get there, and also plan to reiterate the most important points for people who overlooked the many emails. Sometimes, I even tell members in the emails what to look for in the written materials, so they feel more interested in opening the document. I also print out any written responses I get, because some people cannot wait until the damn meeting and feel that they need to respond to the group immediately, instead of waiting for the meeting whose purpose is to discuss the written materials. (Sigh.)

2. Prepare an agenda. Send it out before the meeting. Print copies for everyone and assume they will leave their copy in their offices. Assume they have not read it--other than the obnoxious anal type who writes you back to note any types or formatting errors--and go over it at the beginning of the meeting. Be willing to change the agenda if another issue comes up, and perhaps change the order if someone is especially worried about the agenda item or has to leave early. In particularly verbal or challenging groups, make it a timed agenda. Then you can use the old trick of saying, "Oh, we only have 5 more minutes on this item, so let's sum up the group's concerns/ideas/plans..." and get everyone back on track. You can also require that the group approve taking more time and identify what to do about the other items on the agenda.

3. Limit your agenda. Yeah, this is definitely a mainstay of meeting management. Also, start and end on time. If you don't finish the items on the agenda, make sure they go on the meeting schedule for next time.

4. Encourage participation. Um, yeah, about that. Certainly you want everyone to contribute, but lemme say that I wouldn't encourage the participation of everyone on every issue. It is like class: you gotta get the people who need to talk to do so, and shut up the ones who talk too much and think the meeting is really about them. And it never hurts to prime the pump and talk to committee members beforehand so you can see what they are thinking and ask them to speak out about their perspectives. This must be done carefully and with mutual trust--no throwing colleagues under the bus (i.e., "Jerry, weren't you just saying yesterday that we should cut all student funding for conferences?").

5. Serve light refreshments. Always a nice idea, but not feasible in my environment. Besides, if this were the case, my colleagues and I would wind up eating all day long. Though Powell argues against lunch meetings, I actually find them to be useful and sometimes necessary. This is especially true when trying to meet with staff, who may have no other time they can be away from their desks.

6. Maintain focus. This is the main role of the convener of the meeting--to keep people on target. As someone who takes this role very seriously, I will note that I have found a little lighter, looser touch in running the meeting is better. Allowing jokes, personal asides, and occasional flights of fancy can keep members engaged and build relationships among members.

7. Only call meetings when necessary. Duh. And nothing will make you more popular than cancelling a meeting. It is like cancelling class, but better.

8. Don't complain. Um, have you met academics? If you don't let us complain about having to attend meetings and the like, you have taken away some small part of our raison d'etre. Seriously. Besides, the answer to all faculty complaining is to move into the leadership role and run the damn meeting yourself. Worked for me... I hardly ever complain about my own meetings! :-)

9 and 10. Show up on time and be constructive. These are sometimes the hardest rules for faculty to follow. Many faculty struggle with time management, and really, why wouldn't we? Our lives seldom follow a clock, except as regards class meeting times and research funding meetings, so why would we make it to the meeting on time. AND most meetings don't start on time or end on time, so we feel less inspired to manage ourselves in a different manner. And being constructive is also not always part of our DNA--after all, we must admit that the goals of being constructive and being argumentative/critical can often work against one another. Powell argues that we should be the change we want to see, modeling timely and constructive behavior. I have my doubts, but I have been part of a more positive meeting culture, and it has made for much better meeting experiences.

11. Edit yourself. Dude, that is a t-shirt we should market to academics. Think of the possibilities.

12. Bring your calendar. While I absolutely think this rule is necessary, we also have to include the caveat that the damn phone on which you access your calendar should be muted! Stop with the pinging instant message and email sounds--they drive me crazy.

He also forgets a few important suggestions for successful meetings, so I will add them:

13. Keep (and review) minutes. If you don't, you are destined to repeat the same damn meetings over and over and have insipid conversations about trying to remember what was decided at the last meeting. Have an accessible archive of minutes, so you can see what action was chosen and why you decided to do it.

14. Everyone gets a vote. Unless there is some bylaw that disallows everyone voting, just give everyone a say in decisionmaking. I hate serving on committees with students or staff members that treat them like tokens. If they come to meetings and participate like everyone else, they should get a vote.

15. Don't be afraid to call the fucking question. Sometimes meetings grind to a halt because the group cannot reach consensus. Unless the group has agreed to work by consensus--and few university committees do--don't engage in endless, mind-numbing, emotionally charged debate and discussion. If the lines have been drawn, arguments well articulated, and compromise is impossible, call for the vote, make the decision, and move the hell on. Trust me, dragging it out makes everything worse. The losers will gripe and lick their wounds, but eventually they will heal and move on to other issues.

Oh, and one more unrelated aside to senior administrative candidates... when you are doing your job talk, it is unnecessary to make the joke about how impossible faculty are to manage. We are not cats, we are not children, and such metaphors are trite and annoying. Thank you.

Okay, all this snarkiness seems to make me think I am very ready for spring break!

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