Human Capital

Meeting our Potential

February 21, 2019


By Dennis Wood

In the last decade, there has been constant criticism of meetings. Ranging from daily articles about to cynical texts during meetings, there’s no shortage of criticism of “bad meetings” and there are endless paeans on the virtue of increasing meeting efficiency. But seriously, has anyone – in the history of ever – espoused the categorical love of meetings?

I doubt it.

The list of reasons to hate meetings is long and often justified. Without a doubt, the #1 reason is “wasted time“.  It’s no wonder that modern business writing views meetings as a necessary evil to be reduced or made efficient at every opportunity.

But is that a universal truth?  Do all meetings need to be streamlined and made as direct as possible? I don’t think so.  In my experience, efficiency can be the enemy of innovation.

I agree there is the frustrating opportunity-cost of a tragically-long and poorly-managed meeting.  But let’s not discount the value creation born of a group of intelligent participants who convene in a different sort of meeting; a meeting where they gather to counsel and dialogue on weighty matters.

I am convinced that the current rhetoric which focuses on optimizing meetings has caused us to forget a critical truth; that teams can and should dialogue.  I believe that when humans truly counsel as they are capable, we access the very highest order of innovation, opportunity, learning, and productivity.   The potential cost of an inefficient and long meeting may be significant, but the potential value created through exchange and dialogue is incalculable.

Updates versus Counseling

It is not meeting to communicate information, but meeting for counseling that distinguishes humans from other animals. Plenty of other species communicate information 1-to-1, 1-to-many, and many-to-many. Species communicate in both real-time and asynchronously. Cetaceans, pinnipeds, social insects, birds, primates and wolves are but a few examples of creatures who communicate efficiently and effectively. But their communication is minted in the currency of information exchange.  Where do we hunt? Is there danger? Shall we court?  These are all of the domain of data.  It is data that profoundly affects behavior and ultimately survival, but it is data nevertheless.

There is no wolf pack that gathers to debate a different from of pack hierarchy; no pod of orcas that questions the ethics of a carnivore diet; no termite colony that assembles to argue against a haplodiploid reproductive strategy.  They do not ponder fundamental truths, but we can, and we do.

“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals.”

 – William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2

To the Moon with Michelin Stars

History shows the greatest achievements of all humankind are rarely done by a single actor. They may be the result of a solo catalyst, but the reaction takes place as a product of counseling and deliberation among a team.

President John F. Kennedy’s visionary “We Choose to go to the Moon” speech was not given after he unilaterally decided this was achievable.  NASA’s history explains this speech was the result of lengthy consultation with Vice President Johnson, NASA Administrator James Webb, and other experts.  Only after this process of counseling, the examination not of what is but what might be, did the President concluded that landing an American on the Moon would be a very challenging but attainable technological feat.

Eleven Madison Park is a restaurant in New York City that was rated #1 in “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list. One might think such an accolade in such a highly-competitive industry would come from an organization driven by pithy and direct meetings. But Daniel Humm, the Chef at Eleven Madison Park describes it differently; “When I first met Will (his business partner and CEO), I think he was 25 years old. He struck me as super intelligent, super eager. Asked so many questions. And I am not a “meeting” person. I really don’t like meetings. And he asked so many questions and he made the meetings go forever.” Eleven Madison Park owes its success to many factors, but its novel menu is certainly due to the fact that they allow themselves the time to counsel as well as meet on the mundane details.  An “efficiency-mindset” can drive operational success but an “efficiency-only mindset” is the enemy of innovation.

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.

 – Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

How Do You Make Room for Counsel?

What does it mean to counsel? So many great books have been written on this subject. My favorite is The 5th Discipline by Peter Senge. In it, he introduces the idea that aside from individual intelligence, entire groups have a “collective intelligence” where the whole is significantly greater than the sum of the parts.  When organizations learn how to collectively learn, they create a decided advantage.

So while it is important for some meetings to adopt best practices for information exchange, losing the opportunity for group dialogue because of the blind adherence to a take-no-prisoners, get-in-and-get-out model of efficiency is tragic.  It is tragic because it is an assault on human potential, on human connection and on human learning itself. When we seek to turn every assembly into a coordination meeting, or when our distaste of meetings is focused on small inefficiencies, we take the position that MY time is more valuable than OUR time, that MY intelligence is greater than OUR intelligence, that MY knowledge is more universal that OUR knowledge. Thus, we have no need to dialogue for the purpose of generating new knowledge through collective learning. Again, in my experience efficiency is the enemy of innovation.

Counseling requires some of the best human leadership traits in all attendees. Here are two surprising characteristics that will help teams and leaders (identities which should also be interchangeable).  With them, it is possible to avoid the abyss of the most miserable meeting rathole and seize the highest opportunity before them through dialogue.

First, group leaders who seek to truly convene and counsel need courage.  They need the courage to spend expensive time together, the courage to resist the refrain of the efficiency-minded participants and the courage to accept the collective intelligence of the whole when demonstrated to be more robust.  It is as Jerry Maguire said, “An up-at-dawn, pride-swallowing siege that I will never fully tell you about”. Again, Daniel Humm after receiving the #1 Restaurant award, referring to his business partner, Will Guidara said; “I’ve learned to leave my ego outside and, honestly, I couldn’t be here without him.”

The second component required to unleash group potential is 2-Sided Accountability. What does this mean?  First, every participant bears the burden of self-awareness and self-moderation of behavior. Members must reign in unnecessary, editorializing comments. Second, paradoxically, it means that each participant must be willing to offer contributions that may seem only orthogonally-related.  They may not directly affect the issue at hand but may well serve to cross-pollinate further discussion, creating valuable new insights. When an individual offers such information, the group must value the contribution as such.

These moments of new knowledge creation happen are magic. Peter Senge appropriately uses the word “metanoia” – a transformation of heart and mind – to describe their impact on individuals and teams. I am convinced that an organization’s ability to do this repeatedly represents a rare, valuable, and difficult-to-imitate strategic advantage.

Now back to the leader’s courage. Enabling “2-Sided Accountability” requires that leaders create safety WHILE holding every individual accountable for their non-accretive comments. Balancing the flow of safety and accountability is not easy. Coordination meetings only require managerial-level skill.  Counseling meetings require a different competency; true leadership. I believe that beyond articulating a powerful and energizing vision, keeping the optimal balance of safety with accountability is the most important leadership function.  It is one that yields the deep, multilateral sponsorship, which is essential to the success of any complex endeavor.

We connect with our uniquely-human capacities for imagination, storytelling, creativity, abstraction, and reasoning when we counsel.  It is much harder to tap into these skills in coordination meetings and because we learn much more efficiently in groups, not every meeting should be reduced to an efficiency-obsessed status update.

I believe our zeal to reduce the pain and waste of inefficient meeting has trampled the exalting opportunity of counseling. It is important to know that each has a purpose, but the former is not greater than the latter.  Each has an important role to play in an organization.  I know that counseling with our teams is difficult to advocate, perilous to conduct, and is expensive to run. But at some moment in our progression – as an individual, an organization, or as a species – we must augment our contemporary dogmatic and utilitarian notion of meetings and have the courage to leverage the collective intelligence of our teams and endeavor to change the order of things.

Dennis Wood leads the human capital practice at Mercato Partners

You can reach him at dwood@mercatopartners.com


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