What sort of meeting do you need?

Meetings are primarily about learning, but the work of Jean Piaget, reported by Arie de Geus in his book The Living Company, highlights that there are two different types of learning: learning by assimilation and learning by accommodation. And the reality is that these need two different types of meeting. To see why, let us look in more detail at the two different types of learning. The following is extracted in part from ‘ Meeting by Design

Meetings are about learning

Learning by assimilation is relatively easy learning, it is about gathering knowledge which fits easily into our existing structures for how the world works and our place within it. This sort of learning fills out the gaps in an existing picture and hangs on ready-made hooks within current frameworks of understanding – the new information sits easily alongside old information and does not distort the overall picture. An example of learning by assimilation is to accept that the blue colour in our cherished corporate image which we have been working on for months is Pantone 18-3943, and is called Iris.
Learning by accommodation however is a more uncomfortable form of learning, it involves accepting that the framework on which we have been hanging our knowledge is flawed in some way and needs to be changed; it requires an internal structural change in our beliefs, ideas and/or attitudes. It is difficult because although changing our models of thinking and belief to something which more closely represents reality does move us forward, it actually feels like taking a number of steps backward. An example of learning by accommodation is to discover that our cherished corporate image, which we have been working on for months, is actually disliked by most of our team.
In this sense, all meetings are about learning in one form or the other. In some meetings, where we are clearly all on the same page, following the same script toward a commonly agreed end-point, our learning is going to be a straightforward sharing of key pieces of information and opinion that move us all forward in our intended direction – learning by assimilation. In other meetings, where there is confusion about the situation and the best way to handle it, or where there may be conflicting beliefs and attitudes held by those who need to reach agreement, there is clearly some level of accommodation that is required by at least some of the parties present – each of whom currently believe their ‘framework’ to be the correct one.
The first of these two meetings is the type that is commonly portrayed in promotions of web-based meetings – where the ‘play’ is clear and the ‘actors’ are aligned in their delivery of it. See the lower left quadrant of the diagram on the right. We call these Tag Meetings because they are about a simple handover of information, and to reflect the idea of hanging those Tags on the hooks in a shared, valid, framework of understanding. You can probably reflect on some of your own meetings that have gone this way – they are usually simple, brief, to the point, and a delight to be part of.
But effective Tag Meetings are dependent on the ‘play being clear’ and the ‘actors aligned’, and the question has to be asked: ‘How did they become that way?’ Added to which, even though the play may be ‘clear’ to begin with, time and unexpected developments gradually erode the consensus and alignment that has been achieved, and undermine the assumptions that lie behind the chosen direction. At these points, a simple presentation and exchange of views is often insufficient to bring the insight and shared commitment that is necessary to make efficient progress, and a greater level of engagement, creativity and process becomes necessary to reconcile the emerging divisions.
This then brings us on to the second type of meeting. We call these Tackle Meetings because people have to wrestle with their own understanding of the situation, and with other people’s, to reach a common framework which has the necessary commitment and support to ensure progress going forward. You probably have some experience of these meetings as well – they either took a degree of pain and trouble to reach a conclusion, or they ended with a series of actions but no real confidence in the commitment to deliver those actions, or sometimes both. Simple presentations and discussions have their place in these meetings but are rarely sufficient to bring about the ‘learning by accommodation’ that is needed. More sophisticated tools are advised in order to inspire the creative insight, and handle the variety of participation required for people to change their models and bring their commitment behind a common way forward. Frustration arises when we try to bring about the ‘learning by accommodation’ necessary in these meetings, armed only with tools that are suited to ‘learning by assimilation’ – but sadly this is often the case.
The bad news is that Tackle Meetings need a degree of planning and forethought if they are to efficiently bring people together into an effective strategy (direction/plan) and inspire a level of alignment and commitment sufficient to ensure rapid progress. The better news is that if Tackle Meetings are well designed, they are not needed anywhere near as frequently as Tag Meetings. One well-run Tackle Meeting is often enough to support several weeks’ (or even months’) worth of Tag Meetings. The good news is that the time invested in planning a good Tackle Meeting is a fraction of the time you will end up wasting without one.

Understanding Tag Meetings

But let us start with Tag Meetings. Tag Meetings happen naturally over the telephone, through emails, via web-cams and conference calls. Tag Meetings, in the context of an appropriately aligned and directed environment are easy, and they are not the events that cause us to travel half-way around the globe (or even 50 miles up the road). They are also not the types of event that cause big issues in performance  – those are caused by attempting to hold Tag type meetings in a context of unclear direction and misaligned participants – by holding Tag Meetings when Tackle Meetings are required.
Tag Meetings are primarily about a flow of information from those who have it to those who need it. Sometimes this information is clear and straightforward, and sometimes it needs to be worked upon by interaction. Sometimes the exchange involves only two members of the team, sometimes a subset, and sometimes all of the team.
But the question needs to be asked, do Tag Meetings require a traditional meeting at all, or are there other mechanisms that will work more effectively and economically? For instance, if we look at the diagram on the right, could we do more through forums, or share points etc., or by exploring other elements of synchronous or asynchronous interaction.
Physical Tag Meetings are often inefficient because not everybody needs to be involved all of the time, and Tag information is often better exchanged on an as-needed basis rather than according to a weekly schedule – hence the ‘Always Connected’ vision.
There is, however, one sharing of information that does benefit from a physical (or at least synchronous) meeting, and that is the confirmation that we are all aligned and all working together; in other words that we can be confident that we are still firmly ensconced in the lower left-hand quadrant of the diagram at the top of the page. The need for this sort of meeting should not be underestimated, and it does a lot to maintain morale and raise energy (providing of course you really are in the lower left quadrant) and it can be done quite quickly and as part of sharing other information which really does involve the whole team e.g., overall progress or external developments.
Meetings which are primarily centred around a presentation are typically Tag Meetings. They assume that the information they are conveying will be instantly assimilated into the thinking of their audience, and they typically assume that non participation is ‘assent’. Sometimes they will ask if everyone is in agreement but there are a range of levels of commitment and such meetings can be useful where the base level of commitment is high, but they will not raise it significantly where the base level is low. For this, organisations will require some learning by accommodation through a Tackle Meeting.

Understanding Tackle Meetings

While the ideal place for a team to function is in the lower left-hand quadrant of the diagram, it is rare for a team to start there. And even when they are in this place, there is usually a flow of developments which will draw the team out into the other quadrants. This is entirely natural, and in a complex world almost inevitable, especially as we begin to function in areas of greater uncertainty and we try to access more of our people’s creativity, resourcefulness and character.
However, the mechanisms required to draw people back into clarity and alignment depend in large part on which quadrant the team has drifted into; on whether developments have muddied the play, or divided the actors, or both. And the type of Tackle Meeting managers use can fall into three camps, as shown in the diagram on the right, and in the explanations below:
  • Play unclear/actors misaligned – It is this situation which managers are most likely to encounter at the start of a project or piece of work. Here the Tackle Meeting tends to be formative in nature, enabling people to work on the problem in a structured way, while gaining insights into their own responsibilities and relationships within that. It is about breaking down the problem and moving through its definition and planned resolution step by step, and at each step consciously considering how the roles and relationships of the team are unfolding. The key to success here is to ensure that the problem or intention is first defined at a level which engages with a shared goal for the group (even at the highest level – the success of the organisation – if no shared goal can be found at more detailed levels). It is then broken down objectively through tangible evidence and avoiding divisive opinion and blame, until practical steps become clear, and people are appointed to them. It is very much about getting the problem to work on the people while the people work on the problem.
  • Play unclear/actors aligned – This situation occurs when either a well-established team is given a new problem, or where the problem itself shifts. It is very common in projects which move through stages of resolution, and where the issues need to be tackled at an increasingly detailed level – for instance when they move from identifying a solution to planning its implementation. Key to making progress in this quadrant is opening up the problem through insight and creativity, to ensure that it embraces all of the possibilities, before focusing back down on a way forward.
  • Play clear/actors misaligned – Sadly, the most common cause of drifting into this quadrant is organisational politics; where vested interests shift or seek to exploit emerging advantages. It is often referred to as ‘hidden agendas’, and needs to be addressed early and firmly to avoid generating waste and inefficiency. Key to progress in this quadrant is returning to the problem which all the actors have been assembled to tackle, and then working through the steps to identify the beginnings of disagreement. This enables the group to begin asking how they need to widen their understanding of the problem in order to provide a valid platform for including the hidden agenda. Bringing the agenda into the light in this way, and giving it validity, actually refines away the subversive baggage that may have become attached to it and, in doing so, has made it a common issue for the whole team.
Tackle Meetings can meet all three of these needs, but they do it best through creative use of participative tools rather than verbal debate. Paradoxically, in Tackle Meetings, the boardroom table is often an impediment to process, as it is a symbolic reinforcement of division and ‘sides’.

Understanding Compound Meetings

From the foregoing, we can see that Tag and Tackle Meetings are totally different from each other both in terms of their purpose and in terms of their ideal form. For this reason, they are best kept separate from each other. However, sometimes it is convenient and economical to have both Tag and Tackle elements as part of one meeting. Where this is the case, the following two issues are the most likely to undermine that economy:
  • Failing to be explicit within the meeting about exactly what is going to happen and why, and failing to select the most appropriate and efficient approach for the different elements.
  • Throwing in other items simply because the group is ‘having a meeting’, instead of evaluating each item on its merits, and excluding those that can either be done in better ways or which may detract from what it actually trying to be achieved in the meeting.
However, if the meeting is mindful of these issues, and is clear about the purpose of each item, there are no fundamental reasons why compound meetings should not be successful.

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