MEETINGS IN PARTICIPATORY MANAGEMENT
Increasing Their Effectiveness Through Staff Participation
by Phil Bartle, PhD
Dedicated to Gert Lüdeking
A radical method for removing groans
If, during a relaxed discussion, you raise the issue of "meetings," more often than not you will get a response of groans. People think: "Too many meetings," – "Boring meetings," – "Time wasting meetings," – "Useless meetings." Too often, they are right. We waste too much unproductive time on meetings, and yet we are reluctant to do anything about that.
As part of your programme of increasing staff participation in organizational decision making, you are in an excellent position to make some radical changes in how meetings are conducted, and doing so you can increase participatory management, and help your organization become more effective and stronger. This document is aimed at guiding you to do so.
You can make changes if you spend some time: (1) carefully appraising what meetings produce today, and (2) being prepared to discard many assumptions about how to conduct meetings.
The suggestions in this document may sound too unorthodox at first, but if you start with an open mind, not an empty mind, you will be able to make your own conclusions and make the necessary changes.
No meeting should be held if it does not have a purpose. If you look carefully at the meetings you now attend, ask what the purpose of each might be.
Unfortunately, it looks as if the purpose of some meetings is:
The essence of management is to make decisions. If you are serious about participatory, management, you want to channel observations and analysis of staff members into the process of management decision making. Meetings can be a very effective mechanism to do so. For that to happen, you must decide that the purpose of management meetings is to make decisions. It should have no other purpose.
If the purpose of a management meeting is to make decisions, then you must design it for making decisions. If you have other legitimate purposes, such as to raise awareness or to ensure that specific information is distributed to staff members, then do that in different fora, not in a management meeting.
For you to have effective management and a strong organization, you need to ensure that all other purposes are removed, and that your management meetings are set up only to make decisions, to ensure that managers and staff have input into those decisions, and to ensure that the decisions are made efficiently and accurately.
You need to communicate that to all staff, and let them know the purpose of management meetings.
A management meeting should only last long enough to make decisions. Any time above that is wasted time.
When you attend meetings, do a little appraisal on your own. With a stop watch, time all the segments of the meeting which are unproductive. When someone arrives late, s/he wastes the time of all who arrived on time.If six persons wait ten minutes for a seventh person, then not ten minutes are wasted but six times ten minutes; one hour. If you are tolerant of people arriving late, then you are tolerant of wasting that time of all who arrive on time.
Some people waste time by speaking:
So how long should a management meeting be? Well, it should not take longer than five minutes to make a decision, and there should not be more than three decisions (give or take a couple) to make. That means a meeting should be about fifteen minutes in length. Can you make a meeting be limited to that length?
Meetings for other purposes usually have a strict procedure. The agenda starts with reading and accepting the previous minutes, and moves on to business arising from those minutes. Then the agenda is discussed in detail, and decisions are made by someone making a motion, it is seconded, and then all vote on it.
Such meetings are useful where the deliberations are highly political or contested, and where the participants represent different and competing organisations.
For a management meeting, such formality is dysfunctional and should be eliminated. For a meeting to last only fifteen minutes, it will have three decisions to be made, which the meeting coordinator can list on the board, and allow only five minutes to come to a decision – for each.
Eliminate the traditional formalities completely.
Some people just love to hear themselves speak in a meeting. It does not matter to them that everyone already knows what they believe, and have heard the arguments before. The meeting coordinator should make it clear that such speeches are anti-productive and not invited to the management meeting.
What is invited, and encouraged, is for the decision and its alternatives to clearly and briefly stated, for reasons why it should be made one way or another made, and for the decision made and recorded.
The total time allowed for each decision must be five minutes, and anyone speaking must limit her or his time to allow all statements to take only five minutes.
The word "chairman" comes to us from the middle ages (around 1200 ad) when the feudal king and his council would meet. Only the king had a chair, and "chairman" was a euphemism for the king who had complete control over the meeting. The others, who sat on the ground, on stools or carpets, always agreed with what the king said, if they wanted to keep their heads.
Nowadays some people try to keep the word, but want to appear to be gender balanced so use "chair" or "chairperson" for the position, especially if it is held by a women (often reverting to "chairman" when it is held by a man). In management meetings, we need to remove the word and its derivatives altogether.
What the meeting needs is a "meeting coordinator." The meeting coordinator keeps the meeting co-ordinated, ensures that time is not wasted and that it is used only for making executive (management) decisions.
If a meeting is only fifteen minutes long, there should not be any chairs available for any of the participants, including the coordinator. The secretary or support staff assigned to taking notes of the decisions may be given a chair, but no one else. If chairs are given to participants, they get too comfortable with the meeting, and automatically find ways, such as talking too much or becoming too formal, that will extend their comfort. Remove all chairs for participants in management meetings.
The same might be said for offering refreshments during the meeting. Do not offer refreshments. This encourages meetings to become longer. Instead, invite everyone to the cafeteria, restaurant or bar, after the meeting is over. If it was done right, the meeting will have taken only fifteen or twenty meetings, so there should be enough time left over for enjoying the refreshments.
In orthodox meetings, minutes are kept. These are detailed descriptions of spoken events during the meeting. They may have a function in political and public meetings where there are different factions and the participants represent different organizations. There it might be necessary to have a written record of who said what.
This is not needed for management meetings. What is needed is a meeting report, simple as a field trip report, with the date and time of the meeting, that lists only the decisions made. Who said what is not needed. Details are not needed. A meeting with four decisions should have a report, on a single page, that list the four decisions made by the participants. That meeting report should be completed in its final form within an hour of the end of the meeting, and distributed to participants on the same day
The essence of management is making decisions for the organization. The essence of participatory management is the input of staff into making those decisions.
A meeting is one mechanism for encouraging that input. Meetings should be simple, without formalities, should concentrate only on the decisions, and be short. Some decisions, such as selection of a new staff member, or finalising a budget, and some selected confidential and sensitive actions, might not be open to all staff members. Meetings should be co-ordinated, not chaired, and no chairs used by participants.
If you are honest and careful, and appraise how much time is being wasted now in meetings, you will see the value of making meetings simple and focused on decision making. The difficulty then lies in breaking traditions, and just doing it.
If there are issues that need to be digested, and information that needs to be given in detail to members, then do not misuse a meeting to do that. Instead, set up a short workshop, for as long as it is needed, –eg an hour or three, – to transfer the information or raise awareness. It can be done on the same day, or another. Do it professionally. Leave management meetings to concentrate only on making management decisions.
Since staff members will not automatically understand these issues and the need to simplify management meetings, use this to make up a handout, and set up a half day workshop to impart the principles of participatory management in meetings. Ensure that there are lots of "learning by doing," sessions in your meetings workshop. It is simple. Simple is not the same thing as easy.
There are many thoughtless assumptions and traditions practised in how meetings are run. You and your staff have an opportunity to remove tradition and add effectiveness.
It might not be easy, but it will produce wanted and needed results.
© Copyright 1967, 1987, 2007 Phil Bartle