Cliff Jones takes a look at how we behave in meetings and how they can be transformed from agonisingly sterile and unproductive events into something more useful

There used to be a poster, often placed where everyone could see it on the walls of school staff rooms, suggesting that if we had no work to do we might, instead, like to attend a meeting. I am afraid that the world of professional learning provides no escape from meetings but they do not have to be unproductive or unfulfilling. It might be useful to remember this during performance management reviews.

Costing decisions

Have you ever heard of Parkinson’s Law? Northcote Parkinson was an academic who devised a law that stated: ‘work expands to fit the time provided for it’. To get an idea of how this law works imagine complaining that every time you go on holiday your suitcase is too small for all that you wish to put into it. So the following year you get a much bigger suitcase and, guess what, you have exactly the same problem. Parkinson did not mean that getting smaller suitcases would solve the problem. He simply wanted us to do some critical thinking about what we do. One chapter in Parkinson’s book is about meetings. He examines the reasons for them often taking so long and being so ineffectual. A short précis of the example described in the chapter is that the first item on the agenda is very complicated and costly. Compared with the proposers of the item very few people at the meeting are confident enough to ask questions and all wish to avoid looking stupid so the proposal goes through with very little discussion. By the time the last item is arrived at, however, some people are beginning to worry that the minutes will show that they were present but said nothing. The last item is (the book was written some time ago) a proposal to put up the price of tea and biscuits in the staff common room from tuppence to threepence. Everyone is, of course, an expert on this and discussion rages on for another 45 minutes. Generations of teachers have spent far too long at the end of tiring days discussing a ‘whole-school policy on earrings’. It is even possible to visit some schools on an annual basis over many years to hear the same people putting forward the same ineffectual arguments and complaints on the same topics. One way of dealing with this is to cost the meeting. Look around the room and work out how much an hour each person is paid, then add the on-costs, then the preliminary photocopying and other relevant items and you will get a good idea of the cost of the meeting. The next thing to do is to count the number of decisions, if any, and divide them into the cost. This way you arrive at a crude price paid for each decision. But you can take this further. Management theory will tell you that there are lots of different kinds of decision but in my experience there are three main types. One is the decision to postpone a decision, usually because there is insufficient information or because the chair wants an easy life, does not wish to cope with dispute and wants to avoid challenging someone who is being awkward. This incurs an extra cost because the decision to postpone the decision means that there has to be further discussion and decision making at a later meeting. Either that or there might be a serious failure to address something that had unwanted consequences. Another is the ‘sudden rush of blood to the head decision’. This one has been badly thought through and will probably need to be undone at a later meeting, thereby incurring further cost. The third kind of decision is one that is well founded and sticks and ages later is still regarded as having been sound. How many of those do you make? If everyone taking part in performance management reviews was required to pay directly towards the cost of each decision that caused unwanted further meetings or had unwanted consequences what effect do you think it would have? I never knew Northcote Parkinson but about 45 years after he left I worked in the same institution. I still await signs that anyone there has read his book.

No gaffer at the meeting

Do you think that bosses can forget that they are bosses when people are trying to learn together as professionals? The famous British motorcycle engineer Doug Hele (he revised the front forks on the Triumph Bonneville) once wrote that whenever it was important to hold a technical meeting to make a decision about, for example, a new gearbox, his rule was that there should be no gaffer at the meeting or, to put this another way, if present at the meeting the gaffer should not behave as a gaffer. He meant that if someone had a good idea they should not keep quiet because a boss was in the room. Deference was all very well but not if it meant that a poor decision was made. Apprentices with something to say should be listened to and, furthermore, they should not be ridiculed because they made mistakes or failed to argue well. It might be the case that the meeting would hear something of value and that an apprentice could end up being asked to explore an idea further. In other words, meetings can be part of professional learning for all. So listening is as important as talking. Have you ever felt that people were inhibited at a meeting and failing to make a useful contribution because of the presence of their boss? The British motorcycle industry was once the biggest in the world and included some very famous companies. It is no more. The only major company left is Triumph, for whom Doug Hele worked. Maybe their survival is because of how they were led and how they managed their collective professional learning.

Shortening the winter

And if you chair meetings you might remember the story of the speaker who went way over the time limit and, at the end, smiling, said to the chair ‘I do hope I have not gone on too long’. ‘Not at all’, replied the chair, with an even bigger smile, ‘You have helped to shorten the winter.’