Death by PowerPoint

Eiishh. It’s not the beeping alarm clock and the thought of leaving the snug nest of blankets on a winter’s morning that’s causing the pain. It’s the thought of that 7am bi-weekly three-hour meeting and its inevitable dreadfulness.

Standard menu is a starter of Death by PowerPoint with a coulis of visual challenge. Main course is Dialogues and Triologues exclusive to the specially anointed or bravely ambitious.

Dessert is a limitless buffet of eat-till-you-overreach-your-limit of information and progress updates. This gets the lion’s share of attention; thinking time is scarce. There’s ambivalence towards using brains in the dishes on this menu.

If the menu is unappealing, try my fellow diners. They have a style of butting in, passing chirpy comments, even finishing each other’s sentences. Some are so competitive — they’re so busy in their own thoughts composing what clever thing they’re going to say next that they don’t hear what’s being said by others.

Sound familiar?

I’ve been collecting data for a while now. I ask executives two key questions: ”How much of your time is spent in meetings? And how do you rate the quality of the meetings you run and the value of the other meetings you have to attend?” Time spent is high at 60% to 85%; ratings are consistently low.

I probe further on the quality of preparation and documentation, levels of participation, comfort with speaking out and engaging with disagreement, punctuality, respect, time management, follow-up, the right people being present and so on. Again, problems aplenty.

But meetings are not the sole proprietorship of the business world. I listen to friends and colleagues lamenting about meetings in other walks of life:
”I’ve got to go to the school parents’ meetings. I really dislike the way the headmaster talks down to us. I feel infantilised.”

”I’m interested in politics. But those branch meetings kill me. They’re so boring, and they’re late starting, you have to wait for a quorum, I just can’t persuade myself to go.”

”Eissh, we tried to have a family meeting to resolve some issues, but my dad and brother don’t see eye to eye. They ended up having a screaming match.”

It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way!That’s the title of a book written by the late Margaret Legum, who originally trained me to use a meetings process designed by a company called Time to Think. But in this case Legum was writing about economics, whereas I want to steal her title and apply it to the topic of meetings.

Settle back and imagine the following. You are asked to attend a meeting on something that you care about and you are specifically invited to come and think ”with rigour, imagination, courage and grace.” The meeting leader ”commits to creating such an environment in which you can do your best thinking in the presence of others, and they with you”.

Wow! An inspirational invite! I’d get out of bed with alacrity for that, no matter how early. This is possible. It could be your reality. I’ve watched Nancy Kline — founder of Time to Think (TTT) and author of the invitation above in her book by the same name — and accredited TTT consultants deliver Transforming Meetings workshops several times now over the last five years.

It’s all in the relationship — not surprisingly. Thinking well in the presence of others resides in the quality of relationship between the people. Kline identifies 10 enabling components that comprise a Thinking Environment TM: attention, ease, equality, appreciation, encouragement, information, diversity, incisive questions, feelings and place.

Once you have these components, add in a process — a highly disciplined process. It provides ironclad rules of participatory engagement that create freedom and a framework to think and speak without fear of interruption.

Then add in focus. The mind thinks best in the presence of a question. Just think about it. There’s always a list of agenda topics for meetings, but what precisely is the question that you have gathered to discuss? Once you clarify the question linked to the topic, minds are already applying themselves towards a solution.

Questions are generative, they activate the brain, and also set in place the GPS for the discussion. It’s more difficult to be distracted by a time-consuming detour, however interesting, when you’re focused on the GPS question-destination

There’s a director I know who, since he ”converted” to the TTT meetings process, is reputed to have half the number of meetings (he interrogates the need), half the number of people (who really needs to be there?) taking half the time (effectiveness of focus), and the quality of decision-making is better.

Worth a try?

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