I was discussing the concept of ‘meetings’ (and why we persist in having them) yesterday with a colleague and subsequently on Twitter. While most people tend to think face-to-face interaction is valuable, that’s not the aspect of meetings I’m taking issue with. I’m talking content and process. Think about the last meeting you had. Chances are it consisted either of a number of people reporting on data/processes/news/whatever, or some kind of decision-making/planning. It most likely involved you sitting around a table with a number of others, most of whom are taking notes either on paper or in Word, and probably had an agenda and minutes (we won’t go into the spleen-venting session that was probably included as well). And if you’re anything like me, you were bored, frustrated or both.
This is where I think we’re going wrong. Bored and frustrated people don’t innovate. People won’t innovate when the model they are repeatedly asked to engage in is low-tech, inefficient and old-school. I suspect universities (extrapolate out as widely as you like) are inadvertently shooting themselves in the foot with their administrative and managerial processes. It’s the Dyson model of innovation – expecting innovation to take place in a vacuum.
Now, I won’t argue that reporting isn’t necessary (well, I might, but I understand the case that it’s not), but the internet is not a new invention and thus more efficient methods of reporting have been available for quite a number of years now. Why aren’t we saving the face-to-face interaction for the good stuff? The new ideas? Solving big problems creatively? Why aren’t we using administration to lead by innovative example?
I’m going to challenge the rule that meetings need to be routine, structured, minuted and mutually exclude the concept of fun. I think we can be doing this better. Simple changes in environment or structure could lead to big differences. Take the #rugame series that I’ve been attending – effectively, these are just monthly meetings, but with two key differences: they take place in Warcraft, and their goal is to discuss ideas. To the first point, consider how the environment influences thinking. First, there’s an element of intrigue bordering on naughtiness for logging into a game during work hours. Then, even though it’s just a bunch of people sitting around a table in a room, most of the ‘people’ aren’t human and have an impressive arsenal of armour and weapons. Some have brought pets like wolves, demons, bears, trees or ineffable manifestations of evil. People can interact with each other in all manner of interesting ways via emotes, and in this particular case (click to enlarge image) a dance party has been spontaneously called. Consider how all of this affects the mindset of attendees. It’s an environment much more conducive to curiousity, exploration and risk-taking.
To the second point, consider how the goal of the meeting influences thinking. The #rugame meetings are held purely to discuss new ideas – those that are already in practice, and those that arise from questions about what might be possible. At any time, anyone is free to ask ‘what if?’ without having to put it on the agenda and sit through reporting on figures first. The admin for these meetings is done before and after via a wiki, leaving the actual meeting as a dynamic discussion space.
Now, before you counter me with the obvious statement that Joe Normal academic is not going to pay to get WoW and bother rolling a toon and learning how to use it just to come to a meeting, I’m well aware of this. But a meeting doesn’t have to take place at the extreme end of alternative to make a difference – I’m willing to bet the last meeting you had over coffee in a cafe was more productive than the last one you had in a seminar room with an agenda. Maybe consider sharing something amusing or unusual (I’m not above pulling The Oatmeal up on a data projector in certain company) to break out of structured thinking. Provide fitballs instead of seats. Use Second Life instead of Connect/Wimba/etc. Anything that encourages people to think a little outside the box. The more we can start letting some air into the innovation vacuum we’ve created for ourselves, the better. Are you game?