Anthony Haynes writes: It would be a stretch to define meetings as a part of grey literature. Yet they fulfill some of the same functions in business and professional life -- notably the facilitation of consultation and the diffusion of information.
In this episode, Anthony interviews Dr Carrie Coucher, founder of FewerFasterBolder.
They discuss ways of understanding meetings, the ways they work, and how to approach them.
Carrie's thesis was published under her previous surname of Bedingfield.
The reference is: Bedingfield, C. (2021). Designing Meetings Systemically: Towards a deeper, more holistic understanding of how meetings work (Doctoral thesis). https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.75625.
If you enjoyed this episode, you might enjoy our episode on writing emails, here.
About the publisher
This episode is published by Frontinus Ltd. We're a communications consultancy that helps organisations and individuals to communicate scientific, professional, and technical content to non-specialist audiences.
and work on presentations, bids and proposals, and publications (for example, reports and papers).
To learn more about services or explore ways of working together, please contact us via our website, http://frontinus.org.uk/.
Welcome. This is Anthony Haynes. I'm creative director of Front Limited. Welcome to the Gray Lit Cafe podcast. Brought to you by Front Limited Front is communications consultancy focused on engineering infrastructure, sustainability and research. I'm delighted to have with me Dr. Carrie Gaer, who is founder of Fewer, faster, bolder. Welcome, Carrie.Speaker 2:
And, uh, Carrie has kindly agreed to discuss with us the topic of meetings, particularly based on her recent doctoral thesis, uh, with the University of Cambridge, which is called Designing Meetings systematically towards a deeper, more holistic understanding of how meetings work. And you might well be wondering why we're talking about meetings on a podcast devoted to gray literature. And I think really there are two main reasons. Uh, the first, of course is that, uh, a thesis itself is a form of gray literature. And the second is that although meetings, strictly speaking aren't gray literature, they are comparable. They perform comparable functions to many of those of gray literature in particular. They, um, they're provide a way of passing on information. They provide a way of consulting people and they provide, or to some extent, generate verbal documentation. So without Verdu Kerry, let, let me dive straight in. You chose to spend three years or whatever it was, uh, researching meetings. So what was the motivation? What made you decide to do that?Speaker 2:
Well, meetings have been a slight obsession of mine for about 20 years now. Um, they are in essence, a three standard problem. So the literature, te literature tells us, and our own personal experience tells us that they took take too up too much time. They don't achieve the results. Um, we are looking for often, however, they are important, not just for achieving tasks and group work, but they're also crucial for shaping culture for signposting what matters. And they, they also provide this kind of rhythmic beat to organizational life. So, so they, they represent this very kind of naughty, unsolved problem. Um, they don't really work, but we need them<laugh>.Speaker 1:
Yes. Ok. I can, I can always hear the sign of the sound of listeners agreeing with you. Okay. Uh, so having made this decision to devote this time to researching meetings, what was your approach? I mean, how did you go about that?Speaker 2:
Well, the literature to date, um, in general had used correlational techniques to look at individual elements in their, their contribution to meeting success. And I wasn't convinced by that as a practitioner. And over the first year of my PhD, I grew in confidence, um, to say that I wasn't con, I wasn't, um, uh, convinced by that as an academic either. Mm-hmm. So, for example, um, studies looked at things like were meetings perceived to be better if there was an agenda? Yeah. Uh, or, uh, in one, um, uh, one of my particular favorite studies was the meeting perceived to be better if the chair was wearing jogging kit. So looking at lots of, lots of isolated elements, um, and saying, does this thing make a meeting better? Does this thing make a meeting better? And I felt I couldn't really, um, find any scenario where that would help. Yes, some generalizations are helpful, but I didn't feel that single elements have the power to change this incredible, what I perceived to be a complex event. Yeah. So I took the, I took the opposite methodology. So I used a systems approach, um, where I looked at a much wider boundary of interest way beyond the itself. And I looked the interactions between elements rather than just trying to correlate individual system elements. Um, so in, in many ways, it was a much more, it was a much harder study. I didn't have any other, any anyone else's approach to follow really. Um, and I, I was trying to establish some of the underpinning mechanisms at work rather than trying to compare and contrast these individual, um, components. But interestingly, I didn't, I didn't try and examine what was better. So my, my thesis was okay, almost entirely silent about what is, what is a better meeting and what is a poorer meeting. Yeah. I just was trying to look at what is there.Speaker 1:
Yes, I was recommending your thesis to someone on Twitter last night, and I said, but it doesn't give you a checklist of what makes a good meeting. And it wasn't ever designed to give a checklist of what makesSpeaker 2:
No, whatSpeaker 1:
Makes a good meeting. And by a systems approach in a non-academic speech, I would gloss at as something like looking at lots of factors and how they're all tied in with each other. Would that be a fair?Speaker 2:
Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So how, how do things interact rather than separating them all out and saying, what is each of their individual contribution?Speaker 1:
Yes, indeed. So thank you. So, so having, um, heard what your approach is, let me, I think the, the obvious next question for me to ask is, and what did you find out? What did youSpeaker 2:
Discover? Yes. What's the answer?<laugh> meeting's, the question, what's the answer? Yes. So that's right. So my, my findings supported the idea that meetings are a systems problem, so they behave like systems problems. Um, and by that I mean, the problem itself is sometimes difficult to characterize. We don't all have the same problem with meetings. We don't even all have the same problem with each of the meetings we go to, um, right. And that the solution is difficult to define as well, and that, as you say, there's no checklist. Um, so one of the big transitions I was trying to draw outta my finance is to take us from a literature base which had primarily, um, talks about rules. So what are the 10 rules of a good meeting? Let's see, let's correlate things until we've got, we've all agreed what those 10 things are. Well, my, my thesis doesn't talk about that at all. It talks about the principles behind a good meeting, and therefore it provides context in which you can make a judgment, which are quite, quite different. So the findings that I generated, there are many, many, many different pictures I could have drawn. I did want to draw a picture and I did draw a picture. Um, other people would've drawn a different picture. But I, I characterized meetings as having four stages. So starting way, way before the start of the meeting time and finishing way after the, the closing time of the meeting. And I surfaced eight activities in which, um, thinking is needed and judgments are, are required. Mm-hmm.<affirmative>, so some of them you'd recognize. So things like, there's a, um, an activity called facilitation, but others you might not recognize. So something that, that you can see strands of it in the literature, but no one's, no one had really given it a name. So this idea of social contracting, um, right before a meeting. So the, uh, rather than plunking something in somebody's diary and requiring them to come with, with without their agreement. Yes. Yes. Um, the, the process of, of negotiating and agreeing and enrolling people in coming to a meeting and, and finding, show how important that is as, as an underpinning mechanism,Speaker 1:
I take the point entirely that you are not concerned to just sort of drop a, a list of, here, here's what you must do. But o on the other hand, uh, it, it must be the case that your investigations have certain kind of implications Yeah. For how we should go about doing meetings or thinking about meetings. So I'd be interested to know what, what your implications are. And I, I'd say please feel free to play fast and loose since it's not a<laugh>, it's not a PhD either. So I'm not, I'm sure you have some opinions on the matter. So what, what do you think the implications are of, of your investigations?Speaker 2:
Um, so a, a primary one is about how many meetings we have. The fact that so many of us are, so many of the people I interviewed were in meeting gridlock. So actually no time spent outside of meeting to either to prepare for meetings or to do in inverted com as their, their real work. Um, so my and my findings highlight actually how much preparation and design work is needed. Therefore, my conclusion is the implication of that is we need to have fewer or, or make them shorter. Um, so we need to reduce our meeting loads so we have enough time to do fewer or shorter meetings really well. Um, yeah. So some, some meetings need to be sped up, but actually some of them need to slow down to go deeper. Mm-hmm.<affirmative>, and that's the bolder part of fewer faster bolder. So rather than hitting fast forward on all our meetings, in many cases, we need to have better facilitation, better structuring so that we get to the heart of what matters and have conversations that unearth real issues, real risks, um, rather than skimming the, skimming the surface.Speaker 1:
Right. Interesting. Yeah. Yeah.Speaker 2:
So that, that's the first thing. Um, and I guess what my study highlights is that we've downgraded this mastery level task of leading group work, leading these kind of popup collaborative sessions to just like running, call it, running meetings. Hmm. And we need to re it back to that, to the sophistication that's required to handle these complex embedded interactions. So what's really notable to me is in organizations, no one's responsible for meetings. They don't appear in anybody's budget line item. Yes. They're not usually, they're not part of anybody's training budget. Yes. It's, we just pick them up from Yes. Usually from, from other people who don't run them that well, really meetings haven't changed in format very much since the industrial era. So we're using a piece of communication technology, i e and meeting that originated from an era where, you know, which was based on command and control, where value was, um, generated through commoditization and the kind of separating things out into silos. And we're applying that format to a knowledge-based collaborative participative economy where we need to hear all voices. We need to do that efficiently, we need psychological safety. Mm-hmm.<affirmative>, the more we work collaboratively. So if you work on multiple collaboration projects, you need sufficient time together to do that work well. Well, if you're on many projects, you're gonna be going to a lot of meetings and, and this is this kind of collaborative overload we're in. Um, so we have to do them faster and do them, do them better.Speaker 1:
Yeah. That I, I mean, what, what you're saying definitely resonates with me. I mean, this business about people needing to be prepared to learn how to run meetings. I mean, I can remember when I first started chairing meetings just thinking, well, I'm not very good at this, and incidentally, I still don't think I'm very good at it. And then you think, well, actually, why should I be? It's like I wasn't born with this talent, or other people are born with this talent. I also, I really struck by the way that you've got the idea of differentiation running through it, that<laugh> I was interested when you said people dislike meetings, but for different reasons. And also that, um, meetings are not all the same. It's almost like we need a different rhythm or, or like a musical key, like a different key for, for different types of, of meetings. And yes, perhaps we also need a different set of verbs, you know, instead of run a meeting, there should, we should have half a dozen verbs,Speaker 2:
You know? Yeah. Abs, absolutely. So I talk a lot about hosting meetings and in fact, the word meeting, I I find immediately conjures up a usually a negative image. It kind of, yes. It comes with such a, yeah. Such a kind of baggage of, of content that's hard, hard to throw off and I haven't found a better wordSpeaker 1:
Yes. For a meeting yet. And I'm not sure we're ready to let go of it. However, let's recognize its power in dictating what that experience is gonna be like.Speaker 1:
Thank you. So lemme ask you, we, I said at the start that of course your, the thesis itself constitutes a piece of gray literature. And from my point of view as a reader, I thought the thesis is exceptionally well written. Um, I just found it a real pleasure to read. You, you obviously have a gift for, for writing and a, a feel for language, and it had a lovely sort of relaxed feel and it felt respectful to the, to, to the reader at the same time. So I, I'm interested in how you went about the business of writing it, how you found a style, how you constructed a voice for writing the thesis.Speaker 2:
So first I went to all the Anthony Haynes, uh, sessions,<laugh> that were available.Speaker 1:
<laugh>, this is in, uh, Cambridge, is it? University of Cambridge in Cambridge Department of Engineering.Speaker 2:
Yeah. So, so I found, I found your sessions exceptionally helpful, not just in terms of establishing a style, but also just how, how to thread the story together. And that, that is the major, major challenge in a PhD is how do you, how do you create a story which, which in retrospect sounds obvious, but of course it isn't. As you do it, it's, it's very difficult to do. So. Yes. So J Job one, go to all the seminars I could. Um, I'm, I'm was, I was a practitioner for 18 years before I started my PhD. And when I, uh,<laugh> have a confession to make, when I started my first day at, um, at Cambridge, they sat me at my desk and, and they, and I thought, right, okay, I know I need to read some academic papers, but I've never really read one before. Yeah. And not, not properly<laugh>. Yes. And I dunno where they're<laugh>. Yes. So yes. So that's how, that's how green I was. And I guess there was, there was no point in trying to, to pretend to be an academic. So of course I needed to learn the skill of presenting academic content, um, to, you know, gen generating and preparing academic content. However it made sense to embrace my practitioner voice. Um, yeah. So to create something that was the right quality and standard, but which was readable. And, and equally I wanted to produce something that was valuable for, for people in practice and for me when I left and went back into practice. So I guess it was just so heavily influenced by being something that you could read. And I wanted to produce something that I felt my mom would read and find Yeah. In interesting and accessible and that, that governed everything really. And I think I'm just not clever enough to write it<laugh> to have written it anymore.<laugh><laugh> anymore. Complicatedly<laugh>.Speaker 1:
Well, I, I, I, I really love finding someone who's prepared to have a go at doing something different. I mean, it seems to me if, if all one does in writing a PhD is trying and do it the same way that other people do, well, frankly, the general standard of writing in thesis, it's not terribly high. So what that means is you end up almost trying to do it not very well, if you see what I mean. So, so I like that. Right. Thank you. Thank you for the unpaid ad that, by the way,Speaker 2:
I think the University of Cambridge's very good at providing, in general are good at providing excellent support. And I'm somebody who always asks for help<laugh>. That's my, my signature is if in Doubt, asked for help. So I said, yes, please, to everything. And yours were the workshops and seminars that I went to throughout and find incredibly helpful. Oh,Speaker 1:
Thank you. I'm wrong. I'm really, really touched, so thank you. But, uh, I feel, cuz we're talking about meetings, I, I almost feel like I ought to say, is there any other business? But I, I won't say that. Um, Carrie ghi been fantastically helpful and I think, uh, communicated a really, not, not just communicate piece of research, but like a fresh vision, a friend, a fresh way of thinking about meetings. And I think that will be very welcome to our listeners. So thank you very much. I'm, I'm really, um, touched to have your participation. Thank you.Speaker 2:
Thanks. ThankSpeaker 1:
You everyone for listening. Greatly Cafe is edited by Dr. Bart Hallmark and produced by<inaudible> Limited Front specializes in gray lit to films such as proposals, publications, papers, and reports. The music is from Handel's Water music courtesy, the United States Marine Band and Marine Chamber Orchestra.