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President's Letter - February - "Making Meetings Work"



"For many people, meetings are a lot like the weather - everyone talks about it, but no one does anything about it. Poor meetings, like bad weather, are accepted. Many have come to accept the 'fact' that they will be largely boring, unproductive, and generally a pain in the neck .... Like back pain, people think bad meetings just have to be endured." - John E. Tropman, Making Meetings Work: Achieving High Quality Group Decisions, Sage Publications (2003).

I first read Prof. Tropman's book when I was a higher education administrator. It was a life raft in an existence that rained a torrent of meetings, many of which were unproductive and painful to attend. The bigger problem is that the lack of productivity and esprit de corps among colleagues that such meetings generate does real damage when it comes to delivering on an institution's mission and is not, therefore, something that we should treat casually, like the weather. So what does Prof. Tropman recommend and why I am waxing poetic on the topic?

Tropman advocates seven principles:

  1. The Orchestra Principle: Good meeting chairs are like good orchestra conductors in that they ensure that the hall has been prepared, the pieces selected, and some rehearsal accomplished. Their job is to facilitate, to help, to conduct the orchestra. Imagine an orchestral performance gone awry: You enter the hall and pick up a program that is blank. The conductor asks the audience what they would like to hear. After many minutes, a list is developed; but some of the pieces require orchestra members who are not seated that day. When a final list of pieces is created, the oboist announces that she won't be able to play owing to having to leave early for a doctor's appointment, throwing the assembly into further chaos. Sound familiar?

  2. The Three-Characters Principle: Meetings should be organized according to the character (content and nature) of the items on the agenda and not on the basis of the people who attend (President, Committee Chair, etc.). There are three types of content: (1) Announcing events and decisions (Information); (2) Deciding among options (Action); and (3) Brainstorming and exploration (Discussion).

  3. The Role Principle: It's easy to blame other people for bad meetings and to insist that, if they would just change, the meeting would go better. Tropman argues that the responsibility for changing behavior rests with the chair. If he or she is principled in running the meeting, others' behavior will eventually follow suit.

  4. The No New Business Principle: Tropman states: "New business is one of the great enemies of the contemporary meeting, for a simple reason. Nobody knows anything about new business, so it gives the freest possible license for all manner of discussion." Meanwhile, precious minutes of your life ebb like a receding tide.

  5. The No More Reports Principle: Oral reports, what Tropman calls "oral newsletters" and what some will call "updates," have no place on an agenda, unless they are in the form of something written that can be included in the information section, which is typically not formally discussed during the meeting but is distributed ahead of time with the agenda materials.

  6. The Proactivity Principle: Discussion items should include issues that relate to the future of the organization, so that there is time for a thoughtful, proactive response. Tropman argues that the lasting motivation for people to arrive at and participate in meetings is the excitement of psychic income and the real reward of having an impact on important issues.

  7. The High-Quality Decisions Principle: A variety of views are heard, disassembled, and reassembled in combination with the views of others to construct a decision that advances the interests of all of the stakeholders.

Why am I telling you this? Two reasons:

First, I've said "no" quite a lot since becoming president to folks desirous of providing "updates" at our meetings or using the meeting as a forum for committee work. In spite of my belief in Tropman and personal experience, I do feel a little bad about that sometimes - I have no desire to be or sound imperious. But conducting the business of our chapter is a little like being the only air traffic controller who showed up for work at O'Hare International in the middle of a snow storm on Dec. 24. There's a blizzard of things that have to get done on a monthly basis and there are also larger issues about chapter management and the future of the profession, some of which I highlighted in last month's article, that we can't allow to crash and burn. We have to find ways to use our board volunteers' time well to keep them engaged and to stay focused on what's before us. Tropman provides a way forward.

Second, I feel like we hit one of those high quality decisions at our board meeting this week. It had to do with the future of our Embark publication, for which we have been challenged to find a sustainable path forward. We'll have much more to say about it in the next couple of months (and publication of the 2015-2016 edition is imminent). But, in the words of Tropman, "[t]hose affected, including those who were not necessarily sitting at the table, were ahead. There was a press toward optimization, and that made all the difference." I was especially proud to be a part of our board that evening.

As always, if there is something that the chapter or I can do to assist you, I hope you will reach out to me at barbara@neighborspacebaltimorecounty.org or at 443-377-3760.