How to Run a Meeting

I’ve never been a big fan of meetings. Every encounter with another human is, of course, a meeting, but within the context of business and especially where several people are involved, the very idea of meetings makes me want to be buried alive and forced to drink petrol.

The worst thing you can do is read a book on how to run a meeting. Or employ a professional ‘facilitator’. What kind of person grows up to be a facilitator? Instead, why not use material dialectics?

Let’s imagine you’re having one of those ‘away days’ where you do your ‘blue sky thinking’ as a ‘team’. You’re thinking “Bring me the petrol quick” – right? Here are my tips for success.

The gaze of the whiteboard

The person who grabs the pen and wonders over to a whiteboard is a dangerous idiot. Why has she or he done that uninvited?

What’s happened is that that person has decided to become the sole arbiter of all good ideas. In deciding what goes onto the whiteboard and what doesn’t that person has effectively put themselves in charge.  The whiteboard gazes out at everyone, and we gaze back at it. It tells us what was valued and what to think of next, we obey it. Whiteboards are the tool of ideology.

The Beatles

Having written nothing down, you can now be like The Beatles, whose test of a good tune was always – can we remember it again the next day. The end of the meeting will suffice for our purposes.

Negative thoughts

Positive thinking is not only overrated, it’s impossible. Every positive comes from a negative, a limitation, a thing it cannot be. Why not use this to dramatic effect by asking everyone to describe the absolute worst, most incomprehensible thing your business could possible do going forward. It’ll be more honest than asking for happy clappy dreamy visions (everyone lies) and once you’ve mopped the sick off the walls, you can simply do the exact opposite of what you’ve agreed is the wrong thing to do.

Fidelity to the Event

“Hang on!” some of you cry, “What about those of us who prefer Badiou’s model of a more democratic form of dialectics? If the dialectical process relies upon something which is not itself dialectically reducible, what’s the point in having a meeting? FFS.”

Why not find out from people an idea of a big, significant Event they can anticipate in future. Something that would be meaningful to them. What is it and why would it be important? Work back from there.

Points of disagreement

The truth can be uncomfortable and difficult to express. There’s little to be gained from anything everyone agrees on and uses the same safe language to express. Those awkward moments where people are staring at each other through the corner of their eyes, filled with fear, desire, bemusement and revulsion, those are the ones to aim for. You’re onto something there.

in summary

Here’s my checklist for meeting success:

  1. No whiteboards
  2. No note making. Only good ideas are remembered
  3. No positive thinking. Generate as much negative thinking as possible, then consider the opposite
  4. Imagine a specific event in future
  5. Listen to the language used, what thoughts are unexpressed

Alternatively, you could do it standing up, make sure everyone needs a wee, all wear a hat, or use whatever technique is the next flavour of the month.

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2 thoughts on “How to Run a Meeting

  • A wonderfully weird article, Rob.

    Your point 2. of the summary is the one that I particularly agree with.

    Generally speaking, I’m not one for taking notes. Once, when I was a trainee, we had a meeting of some sort and my manager actually told me off for not taking notes and made me go get a notepad and a pen. Oh dear…

    I didn’t have the balls to tell them what I thought then; you are absolutely right – if it is a good idea, or if it is important enough to be remembered, you won’t need to take notes.

    Oh, and please, don’t drink petrol.

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  • In 1998 I joined Arthur Andersen and spent nearly 8 amazing (ignoring the occasional hiccup such as total meltdown) years there. Around the turn of the Millennium however strange things started to happen within the business and the new wave of cool start-ups feeding the tech boom were in no small way responsible.

    For starters, business names that contained more than one word were a thing of the past, especially if one was the Christian name of someone who had died decades ago. Adopting the approach of our competitors and creating acronyms wasn’t an option either without causing either confusion or concern amongst clients. Therefore simply Andersen, like the marauding footballer, was the way forward.

    Of course, traditional fonts and colours, and from conventional black and white, to orange and with no capital letters. The latter was changed as it was pointed out that it was grammatically incorrect (or it just looked terrible) but not before mind-bending expense had been incurred.

    I am leading to something here!

    Another innovation were the “thinking areas” (I can’t remember if capitals applied here) which unbelievably were soft furnished areas designed to encourage and support thinking away from the hustle and bustle of your desk. Carrying on with the branding theme, the furnishings were all of pastel and citrus colours and, should you try and think straight, created a sensation not dissimilar to those 1950’s videos you see from the US of patients trying LSD for the first time.

    This experiment, and it can only be called that, lasted maybe 3 months in the UK. It probably lasted longer in the US (and maybe Columbia!) which could explain the crazy behaviour that would lead to the collapse of the business.

    The related point is that the most interesting initiative was the chair-less meeting. Pretty self-explanatory and designed for agenda that could be crammed into 30 minutes.Rooms with no meaningful furniture, it was aimed to avoid unnecessarily prolonged meetings. This idea was truly awful and lasted less than the “thinking area”. In fact it was known that people begged to conduct their meeting in the thinking area preferring hallucinating on a soft bean-chair than getting cramp whilst discussing next months resource allocation.

    I think people see internal meetings as an opportunity to get away from the desk/phone, have a brew, have a biscuit and discuss in fairly informal setting subjects amongst colleagues. Well chaired meetings with a well thought out and appropriate agenda (with appropriate attendees as well) can still deliver really positive results. The frequency of the meetings is also important – don’t have weekly for the sake of it when monthly, with a longer agenda, will suffice. Meeting fatigue is a big problem.

    Whether you write the good ideas or actions down or not, the essential thing is that those ideas or decisions are actioned. Nothing worse than going to the next meeting and finding out that nothing has happened since the last meeting.

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