Anthony Haynes writes: We've recorded two episodes on the topic of meetings. Why, on a podcast devoted to grey literature?
Well, our guest, meetings guru Dr Carrie Goucher, argues that understanding (and improving) meetings benefits a 'systems' approach, in which we consider how they interact with the culture of an organization and its other forms of communication (which will include grey literature forms such as newsletters, email, documents, and online copy).
And, more simply, though we don't think of meetings as a form of grey literature, they fulfill (or are supposed to fulfill) comparable functions - notably sharing perspectives and disseminating information.
We published our interview with Dr Goucher a year ago. The episode we publish here was actually recorded before that episode, but we decided to hold it back in order to focus our promotion on the interview.
Publishing this episode subsequently does, however, present a difficulty! In our interview with her, Dr Goucher argues (as I mentioned above) for a systems approach. As a result, she is rather unenthusiastic about the idea of publishing lists of decontextualized tips.
Well, having interviewed her, I have to say that I think Dr Goucher's right! That said, the episode we now publish very definitely falls into the genre of list-of-tips.
Our hope is that, though this genre might not be ideal, such lists need not be valueless. The tips we share here are certainly borne out of years of observing (and even perpetrating) various kinds of practice, good, bad, and challenging-the-will-to-live.
Carrie Goucher'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 listening to this thesis, you might enjoy the following:
- and our episodes on productivity (in November & December 2022).
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/.
Good blessed day to you all and a warm welcome to the Gray LED Cafe podcast. Brought to you by Front Limited Front is a communications consultancy focused on engineering, infrastructure, sustainability, and research. With you today is mua political scientist and teaching associate at Cambridge University, and I'm very honored and pleased as usual to be accompanied by Mr. Anthony Hayes, creative director, <inaudible> , in this interesting edition on meetings meeting . Mr . Anthony.Speaker 2:
Thank you. Greetings to you and Angie .Speaker 1:
So I think the first thing that our audience will be thinking about just in this very instances , why meetings. So we have been focusing so far on gray literature. We know that <inaudible> is , uh, kind of interested in , uh, in gray literature. So where does meeting come from then <laugh>?Speaker 2:
Well, I agree that counting meetings as a form of grade literature stretches the definition somewhat. And I , I'm not too worried about whether we're actually gonna decide that meetings are a form of gray literature, but the thinking was this, meetings often perform similar functions to grade literature. We might use meetings to inform people, for instance. And informing people is one of the things gray Lit does. Or we might use meetings to consult people and actually that's a , a form of something that gray literature does or is used for as well. So it does some of the same functions as gray literature. So it's helpful to think of it alongside gray . Okay ,Speaker 1:
Fair enough. So if we are dealing with meetings, then, what is the first step in thinking about meetings? ISpeaker 2:
Think the first step is to establish a right mindset. So in most contexts, if you said, Hey guys, I've decided to call a meeting. That's probably not gonna make you particularly popular. I mean, inwardly at least you're probably gonna get a groan for , oh no, not another meeting. Because we know that meetings are often a negative experience. They're often tedious or often dull and so on. And so I think it's really important if you're gonna a hold a meeting to get into the mindset of saying, well, mine's gonna be different. I'm going to take steps to make sure our meeting is a positive experience for people so that they come out thinking, actually that was , that was good use of time.Speaker 1:
Interesting. So once you have that kind of right mindset and you decide to call a meeting, what is the the the second step you're gonna take? Well,Speaker 2:
Second step is actually to, first of all, ask yourself, are you sure a meeting is what you want? Mm-hmm . <affirmative> , it's fascinating how these have changed. People these days have a default mindset that we all have to sit around in meetings. You know, I started my career in school teaching, and when I started in teaching, I had hardly any meetings. And when I tell that to more junior people in the profession, now they don't believe me. Well , by the time I left the profession, which found me a few years later, I was meetings all the time. So people have a bit of a meetings default mindset. And what I'm interested in, in doing is say , do you, are you sure you need a meeting? So catch yourself when you think we need to call a meeting. Are you sure about that? Do we , um, if the purpose of a meeting is to provide information, you don't have to do that through meetings. You can do it through other thought channels and media, such as newsletters, for example , memos. If the purpose of the meeting is consultation, that doesn't necessarily have to be through a meeting. It might be that you tell people, look , this is what we are minded to do. If anyone has any views on the matter , would like to share 'em with us, us . This is how you go about it. It doesn't necessarily require a meeting. So all of that is a way of saying the next step should be to challenge yourself and say, are you sure meetings is the optimum form for what you want to do? Hmm .Speaker 1:
Interesting. Yeah.Speaker 2:
Well that , what , what's your view on this matter? I mean, to put it more positively, Angie , where when would you say we should hold meetings?Speaker 1:
Yeah, I think that's a very , um, important question because taking your just , um, insightful answer, it seems that maybe a meeting will never be called , right? Because you could always find alternative <laugh> , uh, means to communicate and to get , um, decisions done. But I think there are three things for me at least, that would make anything eminently needed in that respect. One of them is that you need a decision quickly , uh mm-hmm . <affirmative> , which means that , uh, you cannot afford the time to exchange emails back and forth and to gather , um, like different opinions from different people in your organization very promptly. So time is a factor here. The second one is actually having invested already in all the , the tools that you have, <inaudible> suggested bit emails, memos , um, to get as much preparation done by the people attending the meeting as possible beforehand. So the meeting's not basically about brainstorming forward making a decision, but rather actually just making a decision, which is makes a meeting very efficient and very , um, um, kinda to the purpose. Uh, but thirdly as well, something that I find quite interesting in , um, in having a meeting rather than just , um, being satisfied with other answer is that you are holding people accountable for what they are saying and you are getting outta them as much insights as possible, which is not necessarily best communicated in writing. So if you need a decision and you need like a yes or no, especially if it's a big thing like publishing a book and you are kind of a publishing organization or , um, or either , uh, hiring someone or not hiring someone , um, you need people to to actually kind of come out exactly why they think that's the right thing to do. Listen to them in front of other people as well. So the , an exchange of idea very efficiently. Mm-hmm . But also very , um, crystal clear is being done. Yes . So three things, again, time wise you need to be know whether you are pressured to get that decision. Second, you need people to have been prepared for the meeting in advance. And third people need to be kind of responsible in their response during the meeting. Um, any thoughts on that? Well,Speaker 2:
I was gonna say, I agree with you particularly about the business of speaking in front of other people and saying, you know, I agree, or whatever it might be. I think there's a performative or almost a kind of theatrical element to that, which is important. Mm-hmm .Speaker 1:
Interesting. So if we think that taking what we just said , especially the positive, I kind of know that you wanted us to, to take that first approach and we decide actually we are in the right mindset. We need a meeting and we are gonna go ahead with it. How should we go about it?Speaker 2:
I think the first step is to circulate an agenda, which probably sounds rather obvious, but if you are expecting people to rock up to a meeting and they haven't got an agenda, that's a pretty good indication. That meeting is not the form of communication you need at that point. So it is a circulating agenda in good time. And I would say in particular, there's , there's one aspect of meetings that I confess to being very dogmatic on, which is I think agenda items should always be in the form of questions. Mm-hmm . So let me give an example. You might have an agenda item, which is events. Mm-hmm . And if you have that, people will feel entitled to talk about anything that comes into their mind that has something to do with events. And chairing them is gonna be very difficult if you have a question, should we hold this event or not? Or which events should we hold? Then people come along knowing there's a purpose, this is gonna be a purposeful agenda item. And the chair then has permission when people start going off piece and just talking about events in general, the chair can say, no, that , sorry, I'm gonna stop you there cuz that's not what we're talking about. We're talking specifically about are we going to hold this event or not. So it gives the chair a criterion for keeping people on track.Speaker 1:
Interesting. Having kind of launched the part of, of the agenda. What about scheduling then? Because I know that setting a time for a meeting is a very challenging thing , uh, especially if you have many member on board that need to attend. So how do you go about scheduling a meeting?Speaker 2:
I think there are two things. I think first of all, distinguish between the, when you say starting time distinguish between, do you mean that's when people begin to arrive or do you mean that's when the business of the meeting starts? Mm-hmm . <affirmative> . So if you just say starting time 11, people don't really know whether that's the time they walk into the room or on Zoom or whatever. That's the time they begin logging on or whether that's when the business starts. So I would always have something like 10 55, 4 11, and then people know that they've got this five minute period of logging on and chatting about, you know, whatsoever, like at your end and all that stuff.Speaker 1:
That's very useful.Speaker 2:
The , the other thing I'd say, which i , I feel less strongly about, cause I don't think it applies so often, is try to avoid settling it for the hour. Mm-hmm . <affirmative> . Because if I said to you, now, Angie , we're gonna have a meeting at 11 o'clock, when do you think it's gonna finish? 12 ?Speaker 1:
Yeah. That's just a default mindset, isn't it? Well, for some meetings and now might be the right time, but we shouldn't assume it's always the right time. That would be a nonsense. Now, if I say to you, we're gonna have a meeting at 10 40, when do you think it's going to finish?Speaker 1:
That's an open question.Speaker 2:
Yeah . Not sure. Are you <laugh> <laugh> ? And , um, so you don't necessarily go for a default meeting and it might finish at, you know, if it's 10 40 , it might finish at 1120. And I think this business where people go into default mode and as soon as they sit in the chair or as soon as they log on, they just settle in for an hour, that's not a good use of people'sSpeaker 1:
Time. But if I may shouldn't, like, people know in advance of attending a meeting, whether it'll be for an hour or two hours, it's kind of, it , it seems natural to me to, to, to need to know in advance of the meeting because I cannot assume that people are just gonna be free for me when I'm setting a meeting. Right. So in, in, in one respect, it's kind of , it doesn't really matter whether I, I schedule at 1140 or at 12 ex , um, if I have assigned particular time limit for that meeting. So what do you think about that?Speaker 2:
I would agree with that . In general, we should specify the end time. Um, what I would say is it just makes, the point I'm making doesn't disappear in that case, it just makes it easier to stick to the end time. So if you start a meeting at 11 o'clock, even if you say it's gonna end at 1145, don't be surprised if iris on to 12 o'clock or people have actually blocked off all that time for nothing other than a meeting. If you start the meeting at 10 40 and you say it's gonna finish at , uh, I dunno , 1115 , there's much more chance you can actually get it to stop at the right time.Speaker 1:
Yeah. Interesting. Yes, definitely. Okay . Um , any thoughts on sharing? So I know that in any meeting you should expect different roles taken by people, but particularly the role of the chair is always highlighted in a meeting. So how do you view a chair? What roles do you give to him and is he necessarily, or she , is she necessarily like the most senior? Would you expect them to be the most senior in the , in the room? Or how do you view that ?Speaker 2:
Well, I think that's the key point to get clear. There's often a default position that the most senior person will be chairing a meeting. And that might be the right answer, but let's just challenge that for a minute. First of all, we aren't born knowing how to chair a meeting. There is such a thing as an art of chairing a meeting. It has to be learned . It's not easy. I would say , uh, I , I, every now and then have to chair a meeting. I don't actually like doing it. I don't think I'm very good at it, you know, and some people are clearly better than I am at it. So it is an art that has to be learned and, and you shouldn't assume that the most senior person in the room has that particular skill. The second thing to say is that you can put rather a high onus, a large onus on the most senior person, supposing there's a decision to be made and the most senior person wants to listen to everyone's views on the matter and get the argument straight and then try to make the best decision. That's probably easier if they're not having to worry about how to chair the meeting at the same time and wondering about, you know, that person wants to say something and that person wants to say something, or who was first. Who should I call first? And that person's going on for a rather a long time, so should I ask 'em to stop speaking? I mean, they're two different things, aren't they? And, and so often you take the pressure off the most senior person by saying, well actually let's give the chair role to whoever happens to be good at chairing meetings. So I I believe a jargon for this is distributed leadership.Speaker 1:
Interesting. Wow. Yes.Speaker 2:
And what , what's, what's, what's, what's your view on, on the magic that's gonna help the team to produce a good meeting? Uh ,Speaker 1:
I think at the core would be like , um, a famous phrase, failing to prepare is preparing to fail. Mm-hmm . Uh , <laugh>, so I already mentioned earlier , um, and you have kindly shared , uh, a record some , uh, some of that regarding before the meeting, whether there is need to be p people need to think about something or prepare something in advance that obviously need to be done. But I think what I would add here is that there is someone who need to take responsibility. Again, adding to the idea of the chair outside of that role of the chair within the meeting there , there really need to be someone responsible for setting the meeting in the first place. Right? And usually , um, that person is the one who is gonna circulate the email, or it's, if it's kind of a letter in whatever format it is , let's say for , for our sake , is kind of an email. So they circulate that email, they circulate the agenda as well, so people know in advance what is gonna be discussed. And maybe occasionally asking people if they have points that they wish to put on the agenda, which is not always relevant. But sometime it is important if it's kind of the culture of that organization or that academic , uh, environment to invite people to put things on the agenda. Uh , so that person, they are often kind of seen as a secretary, but maybe I, I would like, and I think you would agree with me, to call them like the manager , uh, better than the secretary, just avoid any kind of connotation that might be attached to the idea of secretary. Although I personally don't have any kind of , um, negative view or, or kind . Uh , I just think that it's a very neutral thing and at this , it's a role that anyone can take in that respect , but just a manager will be more suitable, at least for, for the job , uh, here, so that that manager of the meeting, they are the one who set the meeting, send the agenda. And also, more interestingly, they are the person who kind of conclude everything at the end by maybe sending a report or summary at after the meeting, which is quite an effective way to tie up that meeting if there is a follow up . Again, it all comes down to kind of preparing for the meeting in terms of assigning roles before the meeting, and not only within the meeting, but also bringing people prepared through that person. Um , what do you think on that? Any thoughts?Speaker 2:
Well, it's interesting, this, this, I , I think the worker for meeting secretary, just to use that phrase from minute , it is really important. It helps, has a big impact on the quality of the outcomes. In the uk limited companies used to be required by law to nominate a company secretary, then they're not required to do that anymore. But actually many companies do still do that. And one of the traditional roles for company secretary was to take responsibility for board meetings actually in terms of calling them , setting them up , um, circulating papers, keeping minutes, and so on. And that was actually seen as high status work. Mm-hmm . Now , I agree some people, the minute you refer to secretarial work, they kind of biased against it. They think that means something low level . So I rather likely idea of a meeting's manager actually, that maybe gets over to the problem. Okay .Speaker 1:
Interesting. So we have talked about so many things I think people are, are hopefully are getting out of this episode with , uh, better and more positive , uh, approach to meetings. Uh, but maybe for those who kind of are responsible for setting meetings or wish to have a better contribution to meeting in that respect , any recommendation or resources you would kindly share with us?Speaker 2:
I'm going to recommend one. Um, and appropriately enough for a podcast on gray literature. It is itself a piece of gray literature. Mm-hmm . <affirmative> , um, I wouldn't normally recommend a PhD thesis in this program, but there's a PhD thesis on meetings, which I think is very well researched, but also extremely well written . Wow. Um , so which can't be said of all that many PhD thesis perhaps. So we've put the exact citation and link into the show notes, but it's by Carrie Beddingfield. Mm-hmm . <affirmative> , uh, she's changed her name since, but the, the name on the , uh, thesis is Carrie Beddingfield.Speaker 1:
And , um, the title is , uh, is a PhD thesis at University of Cambridge emanating from the engineering department and it's called Designing Meetings Systematically.Speaker 1:
Wow . So a scientific approach then to , to design in the quo . That's very interesting. Thank you so much Mr . Anthony for such an insightful , uh, meeting with you today on how to , uh, approach meetings. Uh, it has been a pleasure as all thank you.Speaker 2:
As a pleasure's mine . Thank you.Speaker 1:
Thank you. And thank you all for listening. This was Muk with Anthony Haines Gray Lit Cafe is edited by Dr . Bart Hallmark and produced by front Limited front specializes in gray literature forms such as proposals, publications, papers, and reports. The music is from handles water music courtesy of the United States Marine Band and Marine Chamber Orchestra. See you next time. Bye .