13 October 2006

On manipulating meetings

We had the meeting today, about bidding for a "Centre for Excellence". And I did it again, although I didn't want to. To explain; I have a really annoying pattern of contribution to meetings.

It's not a "tactic" or even "strategy" because I don't do it deliberately. It is just a pattern I slip into, and it may annoy only me, because I find it happening again and again. In most meetings, my colleagues have no idea that it is a "pattern". I used to be proud of it, and the way committee meetings etc. ended up "seeing things my way"; now I've grown up and I find it a liability.

What is the tactic/pattern? It's simple, and it seems to work whenever other people lack passionate ideas.
  • Criticise other people's contributions, quite reasonably and without animosity, just enough to undermine them; and then
  • suggest something different which has clearly been thought through, and addresses the other concerns.Create a vacuum, and then fill it!
Yuch! I used to enjoy how it worked. Now it bugs me. Partly because it is testimony to my inability to maintain "negative capability", and partly because what superficially appears to be my manipulation of the committee is really my manipulation by the committee because I can't stand the disorder of indecision!

So! We met today. The meeting was supposed to be 10-11 routine business; 11-1 the CETT. (What is the CETT? Who cares? It makes no difference to the story other than that it was a significant agenda item.) Routine business does not concern me any more, so I drifted in at about 10.30. That agenda actually carried on until 11.45 (no failure of chairing etc. simply blurred boundaries of agenda items). The CETT meeting started then; people had had various ideas beforehand, but they were not really prepared to argue for them, and given that my proposal was based on prior conversations with several members, it was accepted.

Oh dear! Don't get me wrong. I think my proposal is not only strategically good, but also really will contribute to real-world improvements. I have no axe to grind; my ideas are disinterested. (Obviously not "uninterested", of course. Please explain the difference.) But I suspect that there is an optimal level of disagreement in planning meetings. Too little, and decisions are made with no sense of engagement, and hence no ownership and no commitment to contributing to their implementation. Too much, and the dispute undermines the process and the decision—we are all too familiar with that. Somewhere in between is the honest (even romanticised) position of engaging in argument, and accepting and even committing to an outcome. (That will be the position of some members of the UN Security Council if a Chapter 7 resolution is agreed against North Korea.)

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