Meetings medicine

Researchers in the UK have recently put a figure to the time senior managers spend in meetings every year. 550 hours they reckon. That’s four working months.meeting

I’ve no reason to suppose the figure is any less in Africa. Indeed it is likely to be more, as our traditionally hierarchical structures demand more time be spent directing and following up. We’re still not great at truly collaborative meetings. How many meetings have you attended in the last month where one or two people hold court and everyone else holds his breath? I’ve been in plenty.

We’re also big on communalising the meeting process: inviting far too many people who are either not qualified, or empowered or interested enough to make a contribution. A big meeting seems to be ‘the right thing to do’. But from the standpoint of efficiency nothing could be further from the truth.

For the past five months I’ve been working with an interesting team in an IT business. Interesting because they were a true multi-discipline group, drawn from different countries, departments and levels of seniority. And they had never had reason to work together before. As the work progressed the team selected and added external partners for their specialist contribution. So in the end we had the cultures of six different enterprises working together around the table.

I decided to regulate the team’s activities by holding a weekly meeting based on the principles outlined by David Wethey in his book ‘Mote: the Super Meeting’ (currently shortlisted for the CMI Management Book of the year). Mote is the Swedish word for meeting, and the Mote has five principles:

  1. Gameplan

Too often, little thought or preparation is put into meetings. People attend in the hope that ideas and plans will come out of the meeting. We had all participants working on their own ideas and actions. They came to the meeting to ask for validation or help. They held the floor in the same order every week so that we could build a narrative and hold it in our heads without too much paperwork.

  1. Small agile team

Wethy recommends four participants as the ideal number. Our core group was six, with one clearly acknowledged Leader to facilitate decisions. In addition I played the role of Navigator, keeping the discussion on track and on time, summarizing progress, and making sure responsibilities were taken seriously. In addition the Navigator keeps stakeholders who are not present (in our case the Executive Board) in the loop.

  1. Stepladder

The Leader and Navigator invite experts to contribute, and most importantly releases them when their contribution has been made. In this way, our meeting rarely had more than a dozen people present, although double that number were cycled through the session

  1. Performance

Wethy insists that the Leader has to emphasise the importance of collaboration and take responsibility for outcomes. Our Leader did a fine job of that, and focused the team on outcomes rather than the usual patchy narrative we often hear. He was interested not in lengthy reports about activity. Instead he demanded evidence of productivity.

  1. Empathy

A Mote is guided by a philosophy of collaboration over confrontation. It’s all about being a team and not shouting down opposing views. Making everyone feel acknowledged for his contribution. Making sure no one leaves the session insulted or affronted. I’ll be honest; our little team started their journey at the opposite end of the spectrum! But over time we did develop a tone for our meetings that was broadly considerate. Members brought food from home. There was leg pulling and laughter. And as our labours bore fruit you could feel a quiet satisfaction that comes with demonstrate achievement.

So I’m pleased to say that Mote works. If you want to see what it achieved in this particular case you can: As regional IT solutions giant Copy Cat marks its 30th anniversary this week. And does so in a way that positions the business for future success.



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