Imagine going to a restaurant. You walk in the door, and everything looks right. There are diners sitting at tables and booths. There are wait staff going around to tables. Everything looks right.
You sit at a table, look at the menu and everyone finds something to order. The wait staff dutifully pours room-temperature water into your wine glass. Fills your water glass with red wine with 2 ice cubes, just the way you didn’t order it. Eventually food arrives. Your instant ramen with noodles that have turned to mush, and your friend gets their burnt toast. One table over you spy someone has an omelet that is leathery and full of eggshells, and their friend has macaroni and cheese with noodles that crunch.
When you ask what is going on, the wait staff informs you that they haven’t had any training. The cooks either. They all showed up and are kind of figuring it all out. Oh, please leave a good review, their manager is watching.
This absurd comedy is how I view meetings in most companies. Nobody knows how to actually facilitate them, but it keeps happening over and over every single day.
What follows is a real story about one of the more absurd cases of this.
We have two teams. One that develops back-end software, and one that develops front-end. The front-end team needs some files to display things and the back-end will provide them. A meeting is called to outline what those files will be named so the front-end team can look for them and use them. Everyone is kind of tired of these endless detail meetings, so a joke begins about naming the files in a, “wtf,” extension.
After the meeting ends, the teams go back to work. The front-end team builds their code to look for a, “wtf,” extension and the back-end team, in another meeting, changes it to be, “txt” instead.
About the time the two teams integrate their software this is all uncovered. Of course there is a deadline also. So managers begin pulling people into rooms to find out how this happened, and how it will get fixed.
During these meetings the discussion concludes that the only thing that needs to happen will be to change how the front-end team looks for that extension. Stop looking for, “wtf,” and start looking for, “txt.” Except that isn’t true either.
When the front-end team looks at the work the back-end team has done they note that they also change all of the files’ names as well. This means its the name and the extension that has to change. When the team confirms their finding with the back-end group, they deny the change exists. When they ask another group of the same team they say that of course they changed it.
Front-end, armed with their knowledge, makes the change.
So wtf happened?
Meetings happened, lots of them. They all happened poorly. Here’s 2 changes that would have helped prevent this.
1. Choose your attendees carefully
This seems obvious, but there is an overwhelming tendency in most organizations to substitute managers for the people closest to the information. This happened several times in the story, and the non-technical manager simply couldn’t understand the changes well enough to talk about them.
As a corollary to this, inviting people in pairs helps.
2. Summarize the meeting
Everyone kept leaving the room confident in the decisions that had been made. Unfortunately they left the room with different decisions confidently. If you pay very close attention, most meetings have many small decisions or clarifications in them. Sending a summary out to all the attendees and the people impacted by them is very useful. When everyone reads that summary they will then be confronted with any incongruence that they have.
Now, these are two specific points to help address an absurd moment. Proper meeting facilitation is an expansive topic that I only know the bare minimum of, but that minimum completely changes how effective people are in their meetings and the decisions that come out of them.