16 January 2010

Meetings of Mass Destruction

Anybody who has been in the Army for any length of time knows that Soldiers must be adept at such battlefield necessities as weapons handling, calling in a medevac request, and staying awake in briefings.

On the civilian side they are called meetings, but the intent is often the same: to get important information into the hands of those who need it.

One would think that meetings involving Soldiers would be of the most important kind, yet sadly, the Army etched in stone the proper meeting format eons ago, whereby attendees sit in painfully dull silence as the person in charge drones on about his important information.

Meetings can kill, and I had several near-death experiences during my last deployment. This may sound insensitive to those who lose their lives in actual battle, but it's only to highlight the stakes of many military briefings.

This all brings me to another point that can be really annoying. Understanding that, in some cases military leaders send young men and women into life-and-death situations, they too often use that fact to make the most mundane and inconsequential personal projects seem a matter of national security. They pepper talk about coffee runs and photo ops with lables such as "missions," "tasks," and "orders."

But why is it that when the things are most urgent, they deliver the message in the least effective way? The typical Army briefing is a PowerPoint driven, one-sided monotone jargon fest in which most participants (to use the term loosely) leave feeling like part of their soul had just withered away.

You can then imagine my delight when, after way too many of those, I attended a meeting that uplifted and informed. It was my first full "professional development" meeting as a full time teacher since joining the Army nearly three years ago.

Consider a typical meeting I endured while deployed as a public affairs Soldier. It may or may not start on time. In fact, “on time” is relative only to the convenience of the highest ranking person attending. I never recall having a written agenda at any Army meeting, and participation was encouraged only to the extent that it meant saying “yes sir” and “yes ma’am” copiously. “Any questions?” was usually followed promptly by a “good” before anybody could open her mouth.

Contrasted to that, my recent meeting was refreshing, rejuvenating, inspiring, and enriching. The atmosphere was professional, fun, and developmental. We began punctually and a time keeper helped keep the facilitator on pace and efficient. Those with rank or authority certainly didn’t seem to feel the need to flaunt it, and conversations were on point, egalitarian, and creative.

A well known book, Crucial Conversations describes how the point of such meetings should be to "share meaning." At my teacher meeting, I felt like meaning was shared and understood.

As a matter of our school's protocol, we began with a check in designed to get everybody in the mood to collaborate. Then we handled routine business before moving on to the main focus. Decisions were made and intent was disseminated through small working teams who could converse and build understanding.

I made the comment during our evaluation that, in sharpest contrast to Army briefings, leaders didn't try to force anything onto us, but sought that we understood.

It might not have been an issue of national security, but if it were, this small group of teachers might have been able to handle it better than most Army commanders who rely on Talk and Yawn.


  1. Much of what happens in the military is retarded. It has become a club for retards with no desire to do that which works, but to do that which will make one, or a group look good. Sometimes doing what works or continuing to do what has worked in the past is best. Yet, there are those that will change everything for the worse just so they will be the ones to 'affect' change. Retards. Private enterprise generally shows the best means of getting things done effectively and efficiently. Remember what you know, but be sure to know and recognize what you don't know. That is what separates retards from those that aren't.

  2. My personal experience with meetings has been in the church arena, which I personally believe should start being replaced with email conferencing...but whatever. Personal pet peeve of said meetings: when the actual flow of discussion comes to a five-minute hiatus because of some inside joke or comment that has destroyed any resemblance of a group discussion. The end.
    Sara Newey

  3. PS, I'm almost offended by comment numero uno. Not in defense of the Army as a whole, but the "retards" that are a part of it. I hope that it can be recognized that any time you have an organization that is constructed of humans there will be a human element called flaw, even within the most ideal or sacred of circumstances it will be there. And for the record, my "retard" is super smart :)

  4. Peter Drucker said of meetings:

    "Meetings are by definition a concession to a deficient organization. For one either meets or one works. One can not do both at the same time…There will always be more than enough meetings…Every meeting generates a host of little follow-up meetings—some formal, some informal, but both stretching out for hours. Meetings, therefore, need to be purposefully directed. An undirected meeting is not just a nuisance; it is a danger. But above all, meetings have to be the exception rather than the rule. An organization where everybody meets all the time is an organization in which no one gets anything done. Wherever a time log shows the fatty degeneration of meetings—whenever, for instance people in an organization find themselves in meetings a quarter of their time or more—there is time-wasting malorganization."

    (on book "Effective Executive")

  5. I simply hate meetings…that is, one sided discourse disguised as a meeting to make everyone feel involved. Rather, said meetings are an autocratic opportunities to waste precious time.

    Send me an e-mail or text message, unless you are willing to have a two-sided conversation.

  6. I love the Peter Drucker quote! It's such an interesting insight.