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Meetings are precious so make them count

The Round Table by Dspender on Flickr

The Round Table by Dspender on Flickr

Phil Swann, Si Managing Director writes

Thank you all for a fabulous discussion. That was a very informative round table”, the chair said as he closed a discussion one morning last week.

The chair was an eminent figure, he knew the subject, he knew most of the people at the event and he chaired the session better than many people would have done. But he was wrong.

For a start the table wasn’t round. It was rectangular, setting up the inevitable hierarchy of position with an evident “top” end.

There were about 20 people at the session, most of who spoke only once or twice. Some people did not contribute at all. The most thoughtful contributors adapted what they said to the flow of the discussion, but almost everybody came with something to say and said it.

If the aim of the gathering was to collect pre-cooked perspectives it worked. If on the other hand the aim was to have a genuine exploration of an important issue – and this was an important issue which merited a genuine discussion – then it failed. But it was set up to fail.

Later in the week I chaired a meeting attended by 150 people on an even more sensitive topic. I was congratulated afterwards for the excellence of my facilitation, but I had not facilitated anything.

The second gathering was not a failure, however. The aim was not to have a discussion. The aim was to agree a way forward in a setting in which anybody who objected could do so. A lot of discussion had taken place beforehand. Nobody objected, but they could have done; that was the point.

People spend a lot of time in meetings of various forms. Face to face time is really valuable, but too much of that time is wasted.

Here are three simple rules that you should follow to avoid wasting your time in this way:

First, be clear what the purpose of the meeting is and if you are afraid the design doesn’t reflect that purpose, then don’t go.

Second, if you have been invited to a round table discussion and find the table isn’t round, grab four other participants and head off to the nearest coffee shop to discuss the topic there. If you are feeling generous send the organisers a note of what you discussed.

Third, if you attend an event expecting a genuine discussion but discover there are more than 10 people in the room and that there is no time planned to work in smaller groups grab four other participants and head off to the nearest coffee shop to… (you get the picture!)

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