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Johnnie Moore: Why Meetings Are Often Ineffective

Author tells us why 'action theater' is hindering truly productive work chats with colleagues, and what we can do to help.

Johnnie Moore
Johnnie Moore on October 13, 2013.

Security guru Bruce Schneier derides as “security theater” much of the rigmarole we experience at airports. Bureaucratic routine gives the impression of adding to safety, but it often gets in the way of the flexibility and alertness needed.

I have long felt that organisations have an equivalent blind spot, not at airports but in everyday meetings. I call it “action theater” — we go through a series of rituals apparently to ensure we have action, but are in fact deluding ourselves, and draining the energy of just about everyone involved.

Avoiding “action theatre”

I’m sure you’ve been there. You’re sitting in a meeting. Discussions have been going for some time. And someone — maybe it’s you — says something like, “Well, all this talk is all very well, but it’s meaningless unless we agree on some actions.”

And who could disagree with that? Usually, a number of people murmur agreement as if this is some really profound or exciting insight.

As someone who facilitates a lot of meetings, another familiar variation on this theme  happens a lot at lunchtime during one-day events. Someone comes up to me and says they have been talking to “some people” who are “getting concerned that there isn’t going to be any action.”

Personally, I’m pretty wary of second-hand complaints, so I usually ask this guy if there is any particular action he or she is hoping to see. Nine times out ten, they look a bit panicked and admit that there isn’t. Which may be true. Or it may just be that there is but they don’t want to take responsibility for it.

It seems as though someone cares about action, but really, it’s just theater.

Just urging action is like entering a room, rolling your eyes, telling everyone how untidy it is (by which you really mean, how untidy they are), and then leaving without picking up any litter.

Instead of falling into this trap, take the risk of being clearer about what you want or what you feel. And get in the habit of challenging those who demand “action” to be more specific. (By the way, the same goes for other popular management abstractions like “change” and “innovation”.)

Cancel commitment ceremonies

The risk of action theater tends to rise the longer meetings continue. That’s often to do with having something to present to powers-that-be outside the room, to prove that the event hasn’t just been a talking-shop. And it certainly conforms to a neat and tidy notion of having meetings that follow a linear path ending in certainty and completion.

The trouble is, in the real world, these action planning sessions are often deadly and fake. They assume the following:

  • That action is what is needed now, as opposed to, say, further reflection
  • That the people in the room are uniquely empowered to act, when frequently they aren’t
  • That everyone’s nicely aligned and all are agreed on what should happen
  • That everyone has been able to assimilate a whole lot of new information, make sense of it, and can now make a decision

Often, people will go along with these commitment ceremonies not because they’re wildly enthused. Really, their commitment translates as, No, I won’t do this, but I’m saying yes because it’s 5 o’clock and I want to go home. We all know what’s agreed here may have only a passing resemblance to what will actually happen in the real world, anyway.”

You end up with pseudo-agreements that just tick boxes for productivity.

Instead of bullying people into action, try to get them to be clear on the point they have actually reached in a way that means everyone speaks and is heard. You might have a round where everyone is allowed a chance to check in, perhaps responding to a very open question that lets them choose to report what they’ve learnt, what they’re concerned about, and what they see happening next without a sense that only “action” is to be the focus.

What often happens is the groups get a few surprises in this process, realising that a lot has been going on for people and that people in the room are often responding in quite different ways: some are reflective, some inspired, and some anxious. Quite often, it turns out the people have already agreed actions anyway, and these sound much more convincing than those you get from an commitment ritual.

It’s a more human and believable way to end a meeting. It acknowledges the complexity and richness of people’s experience instead of squashing it into boxes. It may not look so tidy or fit a spreadsheet, but it feels more real.

Move, move, move

And instead of all this pretend action, maybe what you need is some real, genuine, physical activity. It seems that in most organisations, sitting still and pontificating is a badge of status. I think this creates really boring meetings and a terrible quality of thought.

Baba Shiv of Stanford University conducted an experiment, reported here. Students were put into two groups. Both had to memorise a number and were then sent to another room for refreshment. In that room was a choice of healthy fruit or less healthy cake. One group only had to remember a two-digit number. The other had to cope with seven digits. Those with the seven-digit task were significantly more likely to opt for cake than fruit.

That’s because even a small amount of extra mental activity degrades the operation of our pre-frontal cortex, and with it, our reasoning and willpower.

In too many meetings we sit for too long, arguing with what we think is great cleverness when in fact our rational brain is already worn out and running on empty.

We need to move about and do things, not simply sit and talk. We’re not meant to sit still for long. Apart from the obvious health risks of sitting for too long, if our bodies are stuck, our minds are likely to be stuck too. Movement gives a different perspective. Movement stimulates different parts of your brain.

The human brain evolved under conditions of almost constant motion. From this, one might predict that the optimal environment for processing information would include motion. That is exactly what one finds. Indeed, the best business meeting would have everyone walking at about 1.8 miles per hour.” — John Medina, Brain Rules

So let’s get shot of poor-quality action theater, and opt for some real drama instead.

Johnnie Moore is a facilitator who has worked in Europe, North America, Africa and Asia. He’s co-author of Creative Facilation, a free book you can download at creativefacilitation.com/book.

Image via LeraBlog.

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