Making Meetings Matter


Despite the triumph of American arms in the Revolutionary War, by 1787 the former colonies, loosely affiliated under the Articles of Confederation, were suffering severe setbacks at home and abroad. The Articles allowed only for a very weak central government which was incapable of regulating activities between the states at home and equally impotent at defending American interests abroad (such as with the Barbary pirates). Citizens knew that a stronger central government was needed and convened the US Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia from 25 May to 17 September 1787.

The group included delegations of leading men of each state. Each delegate had been appointed by the state legislature and commanded the respect of its citizens. Each state (except Rhode Island) sent a delegation, reflecting the beliefs of their legislatures in the objectives and the importance of the Convention. The Convention had a formal process which was overseen and chaired by the most respected man in the colonies at that time, George Washington. Members included politicians, lawyers, scientists, soldiers, physicians, and businessmen. The Convention almost broke up several times because of the differences of opinion and the personalities of influential members. The Committee of Style and Arrangement, headed by Gouverneur Morris and including several intelligent and ambitious men who wanted to make a mark on history, created the final draft of the Constitution and made important adjustments. Alexander Hamilton’s reputation suffered as a result of his participation, but James Madison’s was enhanced.

After the convention the delegates went back to their home states and lobbied their state legislatures to ratify the document. Nine states, the number required by the predecessor of the Constitution, the Articles of Confederation, ratified it by 26 July 1788. All thirteen finally did by May 1790, and the United States was born. Though no state got everything that they wanted, by having participated in the Convention, the States had enough confidence in the process and in the final product to accept it.

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 was an excellent example of a meeting that mattered. Leaders holding meetings today would do well to follow its example.

The Example of the Constitutional Convention

Meetings are among the most loved and hated activities of any organization. Some believe that they are a waste of time, with the “real work” occurring before or after. This is a misperception. Meetings serve many important purposes:

1. They bring together the stakeholders of an issue and allow each representative to advocate for his or her constituency and participate in the outcome. If this is not done, the stakeholder will not feel a part of the product of the meeting and will either not support it or actively resist it. 2. They provide a forum for a variety of ideas and concerns surrounding the issue at hand. Such diversity of thought may provide better outcomes. 3. They identify those individuals most concerned with the issue and most likely to succeed as action officers on the issue. 4. They communicate that organizations, not just individuals, support the project. 5. They demonstrate that decisions are being made according to a formal process and therefore provide credibility in the minds of people inside and outside the system. 6. They are ceremonial occasions for people to enhance (or diminish) their stature among others.

The Constitutional Convention brought the right stakeholders in the thirteen states together to discuss issues of vital interest to all. Organizers ensured that each state sent its chosen representatives. These men would not only represent the state at the Convention but represent the Convention to their state; lobbying the legislature to ratify whatever the Convention finally produced. Though the participants were all wealthy white men, they had a diversity of thought which produced a lasting result. Speaking with the voice of their state, each delegate represented not only himself but also his legislature and his citizens. The process was very formal and opposing ideas were heard and respected. The Convention was alive with ceremony, with the greatest man in the former colonies, George Washington, guiding the process.

The Chairman

The mission of the chairman of the meeting is to make sure that the meeting accomplishes its goals within the allotted time and with the proper procedures. He or she is the guardian of the process. Since any committee must have credibility with those on the committee and all of the other stakeholders, an important goal of any committee and major goal of the chairman is to protect the integrity of the process.

The chairman of the meeting and those sponsoring it must be prepared. They must have a specific outcome in mind. What exactly should this meeting accomplish? Will a document be produced? Will attendees agree to participate in something? Are the right people present to make decisions? Are the right people invited to bring the information back to their leaders?

Powers of the Chairman

1. Control the date, time and place. 2. Control the duration and agenda. Even after a topic is on the formal agenda, the chairman can choose not to discuss it. This is typically done with topics that are less important and when the time is running short. 3. Determine which participants in the meeting speak, and for how long. Sometimes a chairman will need to cut off someone who is being disruptive or long winded. It should be done as respectfully as possible. 4. Adjourn the meeting at any time. It is a good idea to let people know when the meeting will adjourn at various points in the last half of the meeting. They will self select their comments to meet this goal.

These powers are considerable. A chairman can kill a proposal by scheduling a meeting at a time when the proposal’s main advocate cannot attend, or by refusing to bring an issue to a vote. He can damage his opposition by limiting their time to speak or changing the venue to a more hostile location. For example, lawyers commonly ask judges to change the location of trials and composition of juries in their favor. When the group votes on an issue, the chairman should generally vote last, and may only need to vote to break a tie.

Since the power of a committee chairman is great, he must not use it to further his personal agenda. The chairman must instead use these powers to accomplish the goals of the meeting and guard the integrity of the process. Abusing them will decrease the credibility of the chairman, the meeting, the participants, and the process as a whole.

The chairman should also be on time, but may (rarely) choose to come in a little late to communicate a point to the attendees. He should also end on time unless there is a compelling reason not to. Compelling reasons are rare.

George Washington was masterful. He spoke very little during the Constitutional Convention, preferring to guide the proceedings administratively. When he spoke, Washington was incisive. One delegate suggested that the US army should be limited to 3,000 troops. Washington replied “if we do that we must certainly include a provision that no enemy be allowed to attack us with more than 3,000 troops.” The matter was settled.

Preparation for the Meeting

1. Secure the right venue such as a conference room. If it will be a teleconference or a video teleconference, ensure that the appropriate communications (dial in numbers, etc.) are set up. 2. Organizers review the participant list and the agenda with the chair of the meeting. 3. Action officers and subject matter experts who will be briefing prepare their slides and documents ahead of time. These are forwarded to the meeting organizers for review. If they are appropriate, they should be distributed to the participants as read aheads at least five working days prior to the meeting. 4. Organizers ensure that adequate parking and seating is available. 5. Longer meetings should include scheduled breaks every two hours and include food and drink if the meeting will last more than one-half day. 6. Multiday meetings should include provisions for overnight accommodations for participants. 7. Roles for each meeting – organizers, chairman, recorder/minutes taker, timekeeper, briefers, other participants.

Agenda

1. Welcome – The chair of the meeting welcomes the participants, makes or allows introductions as necessary, and describes the purpose of the meeting. 2. Old Business – Successful meetings should generate tasks that various participants have to accomplish after the meeting. The status and suspense date of each task should be briefed by the action officer, the person charged with accomplishing the task. Eventually the tasks should be completed and the issues closed in the minutes. 3. New Business – New items that need to be discussed by the group are included. Subject matter experts will brief each item, and they will work each issue with the appropriate action officer on the committee. 4. Roundtable – Each participant is given the opportunity to discuss any other issue that is appropriate for this venue. 5. Minutes first draft – The recorder clarifies any questions he or she may have about the meeting and provides an initial summary for the participants. 6. Adjourn.

Attendees

The discussion above describes the characteristics of attendees. Organizers must invite people who understand and support the mission of the organization and have the credibility and authority to meet the mission. Attendees must come prepared. They should receive the agenda and pertinent preparatory material (read aheads) before the meeting and review them before the meeting. At least 90% of those who should be at the meeting must be there. Organizers must keep attendance and let each member’s supervisor know when someone fails to show without prior coordination. Everyone in a meeting should participate, either by contributing to the discussion or at least taking notes for dissemination in proper venues. Those who do not participate should not be invited back.

In the Articles of Confederation, each state, no matter the geographic size or population, received one vote in Congress. In the 1787 Constitutional Convention the allocation of votes was the same. This meant that the smaller states, including Vermont, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Georgia and the Carolinas had nine votes and the larger states, including Virginia, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, had only three (Rhode Island did not send a delegation). The small states were determined to maintain the One State One Vote system rather than move to a system that allocated votes based on population because they would lose power and the bigger states would gain. The Pennsylvania delegate James Wilson, a chief proponent of allocating votes in the new Congress based on population, had to find a way to divide the small state voting bloc. He did so by striking a bargain with the Deep South slave-holding states. If they would back allocating votes in Congress by population, he would insert language into the new Constitution protecting slavery. After a summer of haggling the deal was made: the House would seat members based on population, the Senate would seat members two per state, and slavery would linger on in America until washed away in a torrent of blood and fire only 78 years hence.

As this example should make clear, the composition of the attendees, especially deciding who can vote, is critical. Meeting organizers, especially when chartering new groups, should identify the group’s goals and then decide how to craft the group to best achieve those goals. Groups in which everyone agrees and which are meant to be temporary may not need a formal charter, but most groups should be chartered. Participants should be diverse, reflecting the many points of view of all of the key stakeholders to the issue. Each member should be a respected member of whatever community they are representing. This will allow them to sell the work of the group to their constituents. All stakeholders should have, and should believe that they have, a meaningful part in the process. No matter how good the product, if the representatives can’t convince their constituents of its quality, the meeting will fail.

Presenters

There are two basic types of briefs or presentations, the information brief and the decision brief. The information brief transmits information to the audience (and often a decision maker) about some event, concern, topic of interest, etc. The leader will typically request more information or more collaboration prior to the decision brief. There can be many information briefs. The decision brief presents courses of action to a decision maker with the expectation that he or she will be able to make a decision on the issue at hand. Typically once a leader makes a decision it is final unless other information is produced. Therefore the decision brief must present the reasonable courses of action comprehensively and then make a sound recommendation regarding which the decision maker should choose. For more information on these briefs, see Getting Things Done in Military Medicine at colmdharris.wordpress.com.

Minutes

If there is one part of meetings which is misunderstood and neglected, it is minutes. Minutes are the formal record of the meeting, including who said what and which decisions were made. The recorder must be clearly identified in the minutes and the notes must be comprehensive. Minutes form an important part of the historical record for the organization and are legal documents. Meeting minutes are often subpoenaed in court cases and must be able to withstand legal scrutiny. Meeting organizers must ask themselves, “if a meeting is not important enough to be recorded and verified, is it important enough to have?” If the purpose of meetings is to get the right things done, the purpose of minutes is to record what was done and document it so that past meetings can direct future action. The obligatory review of the minutes of previous meetings, too often perfunctory, should be done with care. Having a consistent format for minutes allows the recorder to have a first draft done by the end of the meeting.

James Madison (Virginia) kept a journal of the Constitutional Convention which provides the most detailed account available. Robert Yates (New York), Rufus King (Massachusetts), and William Pierce (Georgia) kept some extant records. Charles Pinckney (South Carolina) also kept notes but these have not survived.

General Notes

Meetings sometimes seem to be a waste of time, and sometimes they are. No meeting should be held without a purpose, and that purpose must be important. There are other ways to help make sure that meetings are worthwhile:

1. Remember that communication must be regular, and regular communication must be planned. Meetings must occur at predictable dates and times, and must have specific agendas and participants. Section, service and department meetings should happen at least once per month, on average.

2. Formal meetings worth having are worth preparing for, and this must include formulating a purpose, an agenda and minutes. A specific product should come out of every meeting, even if the product is simply information dissemination. Workers in complex organizations frequently complain that they do not know what is going on in other areas of their organization, and well executed meetings can address that problem.

3. How to accomplish the purpose of the meeting a. Right message – The message must support the strategy. The Constitutional Convention was called to fashion a central government for a loose coalition of states. The delegates had to agree to specific provisions and prepare a specific document. Their mission and their message mattered. b. Right venue – Philadelphia was centrally located in the colonies and was the de facto home of the new government. Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the site of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the Second Continental Congress, fit the occasion. c. Right presenters – The chair of a meeting sets the tone of the meeting, serious or flippant, formal or informal, and friendly or adversarial. Presenters must be knowledgeable and concise. d. Right audience – Each state sent not one but several leading men to serve as delegates. These men also had the most to lose if they did not represent their state. Stated again, the interests of the delegates aligned closely with the interests of the people they represented. e. Right medium – As the famous philosopher of communication Marshall McLuhan wrote, “the medium is the message.” Words and pictures on a slide or handout are not the only ways to get a message across. Football teams meet to discuss game films and manufacturers communicate using models of their wares. Once meeting organizers have decided what they hope to accomplish, they need to use the right medium to do it.

4. Information discussed at staff meetings must be communicated throughout the organization in department/service meetings, emails, “cascading from level to level” with no one left out.

5. Meetings should be at least cordial in tone.

6. Rules of order, such as Robert’s Rules of Order, are useful for keeping meetings fair and orderly. They must not be allowed to dominate discussion, but they must be used to direct discussion.

7. Participants should show up on time, because failure to do so communicates that those on time are not as important as the one who is late. A time keeper should remind the chair of the time and the chair must keep things moving.

Other meeting types

The structured meeting that is presented here is not the only possible or the only productive type. Every industry needs some meetings which are less structured, especially if the goal is the free flow of ideas and innovation. Organizers planning such meetings still need to carefully consider their goals and the best format to achieve those goals. Planning matters.

Conclusion

Gathering to solve problems is important in the modern business, government, and other organizations. Such gatherings, called “meetings”, are common, and they are as important as the purpose for which they were called. They are as productive as the productivity of the attendees. Meetings are as focused as the clarity of their structure. The US Constitutional Convention of 1787 is a terrific example of what a meeting should be. By any account, it was a meeting that mattered. It is the author’s hope that gleaning lessons from the Founding Fathers will help meetings today accomplish more and make our organizations and our nation better than ever before.

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