The Economist’s 1843 magazine had a recent article by James Surowiecki, the author of “The Wisdom of Crowds”, titled “Why Satan should chair your meetings” – and subtitled “A literature lover’s guide to office politics”. Five literary greats offer ideas on how to make meetings more productive. Here’s a nutshell summary, but the article itself is a worthwhile read.
First: Homer’s Iliad describes meetings that include high-ranking Greek officers, led by Agamemnon, as well as common people. The officers’ objective is to figure out how to resolve the stalemate in Greece’s war against Troy – but, as the article says, there was “a reasonable argument dismissed with violence”. Common people, who were expected to applaud high-level decisions rather than question or criticize them, were beaten up for speaking their minds.
- The Iliad Tip: Let people contribute their ideas. Collect the different points people make and gather all the most useful information so you can put it to work and formulate a solution that will help you reach your objectives. Don’t beat people up for not bowing to your expectations.
Second: Shakespeare’s King Lear has a decision to make about his succession: how should he divide up his kingdom and allocate proper portions to his three daughters? He meets with them, and his two older daughters pour praise on their father but the youngest does not. Lear is enraged and disowns her, angry that she was so disrespectful.
- King Lear’s Tip: “Bosses who expect their underlings to back up their views will often make bad decisions”. So, listen to what people have to say, and don’t try to make people give in to your preferences or your ego.
Third: William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” is a story of young boys stranded on a desert island who want to clarify the roles and responsibilities of their group’s members. The only rule for their meetings is that any member can speak if they are holding the group’s conch shell. Even so, the meetings are full of conversations – “talkativeness feeds on itself” – but they are not effective in producing the intended results.
- A Tip from the young Lords: Meetings need direction, beyond just passing around a conch shell. Discussion and opinions are good, but there also need to be some strategies, plans and agreements for actions to take after the meeting to address the situation at hand.
Fourth: John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” is the story of a rebellion that took place in Heaven and sent an army of fallen angels off to their future in Hell. Once there, Satan held a meeting to create a solution to the problem, then called a vote on the matter – everyone voted for his preferred outcome. Getting the input of all participants produces a collective judgment, which is more likely to be a good judgment.
- A Tip from Satan: It helps to ask everyone in the room to speak their opinion at the meeting. You could also have them rank the value of all the various options presented. The wisdom of crowds says that a result of that kind of participation is most likely to be effective.
Fifth: The Jewish Talmud, a comprehensive version of Jewish oral law and commentaries on it, originated in the 2nd century CE. The word ‘Talmud’ comes from the Hebrew verbs ‘to teach’ and ‘to learn’. One Talmudic principle contains an important insight regarding the perils of consensus: “if everyone is seeing things a certain way, you may well have missed something important”. Sometimes meetings don’t open minds, they close them.
- The ‘Teach and Learn’ Tip: One strategy to avoid groupthink is to take input from people in a reverse order of seniority, so that less experienced participants don’t give in to conformism. Allow disagreements, and consider postponing further discussion until the next meeting to give people time for a more thoughtful response to the options available.
It’s good to know that problems with meetings go way back in history, and are addressed in both fiction and non-fiction throughout the ages. Some useful advice in there too, including the author’s suggestion that perhaps Satan should chair your meetings.