Thursday, June 11, 2009

Sometimes It Actually Works

Like Tolstoy's unhappy families, every bad meeting is bad in its own particular way. Some elements of lousy meetings are common enough to be recognizable from afar: domination by blowhards, poorly constructed agendas, leaders playing “guess what I'm thinking.” But even without the obvious hazards, meetings can go wrong in so many ways that those of us who endure more than most learn pretty quickly to lower our expectations.

Maybe that's why this one came as such a welcome surprise. Once in a while, the planets align, and a meeting you fully expect to be nothing more than pedestrian actually achieves something that could not have been achieved any other way.

It started inauspiciously. It was an end-of-year wrap-up for a task force. There was the usual perfunctory recap of the year, an outline of things to come next year, a few questions, some jokes, and a bit of news. Then someone brought up an email flame war that had ensued a few weeks earlier.

As with so many conflicts, it was both heartfelt and fundamentally stupid. It grew out of a real-life version of the old game “telephone.” A condensed version:

Group A is served by Program A, which does a good job. The leaders of Program B, which offers similar services, decide to target Group B, on the theory that Group A is already served. Someone on the front lines hears that Program A is for Group A and Program B for Group B. Member of Group A asks about Program B, and is told on front lines that “it's not for you.” Someone from Program A hears that members of Group A are being excluded from Program B, and charges discrimination. Program B offers irrelevant response, not having any idea where the charges came from. Long, very angry emails start flying. Personal grudges are given airtime under cover of the latest conflict. Sinister agendas are imputed. Nobody can exactly pin down just what the hell happened.


This meeting wasn't intended to address that, but the issue came up, and people from both A and B were there. And in one of those moments that people in my job live for...

People actually listened to each other, and pieced together what had happened. People admitted confusion, told their truths, and listened. And as the fragments of truth spilled out, we were able to put them together in a narrative that explained it all without ascribing bad intentions to anybody. After about forty minutes of discussion – much of it relatively animated – we realized that while there were clearly some communication mistakes, we didn't have to demonize anybody to explain them. Both programs were honestly trying to do the right thing. The issue was a lack of a shared context, which is fixable.

To normal people, this is probably about as exciting as toast. But to administrative types like me, this is what a clean win looks like. We all came out of that meeting with a clearer understanding of what had happened, able to both explain and discount the flame war, and able to take steps to prevent similar failings in the future. We were able to redirect our energies from internal politics to serving the students. And we experienced a meeting that actually worked.

I don't think that could have worked over email. When an entire group is bushwhacking together, there's an electricity in the room that just doesn't happen asynchronously. And the loss of interruptibility, intonation cues, and body language (among other things) in email can make it harder to convey a certain kind of productive confusion. (It can be done, but most people aren't terribly artful writers.) This group – spontaneously – took a chance on uncertainty, and won.

Sometimes it actually works. Even this jaded veteran of task force meetings had to smile.