Finding the real work that meetings are good at

Digesting Elizabeth Ayer’s insight into how meetings could support collective learning

How can meetings better support collective learning?

Elizabeth Ayer gets deeply frustrated by the whole “meetings aren’t real work” thing and has expanded that thought in Meetings are the work

Every day I see people trying hard to avoid meetings … I get it. Meeting culture sucks. It’s too easy for people to thoughtlessly take each others’ time, occupy standing slots, show off with performative teamwork, and generally suck your energy. Meetings feel like dead time. Meetings are time spent with people yet strangely devoid of social gratification. Meetings typically bore most participants — the greatest sin in knowledge work — and when they’re over, nothing has changed except us all being that much closer to retirement.

Her hypothesis borrows from Druckers’s Landmarks of Tomorrow and expresses success in knowledge as being not the facts we know, but by how good we are at judging the truth of uncertain things, and suggests that in a healthy workplace, the whole system promotes higher-quality knowledge production, above and beyond what any individual could achieve alone…

Contrasting that with the almost ubiquitous sense that organisations don’t learn, Elizabeth leans heavily on Argyris On Organizational Learning to assert that pretty much everyone finds the interaciton of individual and organizational learning very hard.

She expresses what she thinks does work for learning, as:

  • A good individual knowledge worker has information and experience in the domain they’re making decisions about.
  • A great knowledge worker has a solid practice of learning, demonstrably improving in effectiveness over time.
  • The best knowledge workers have a social reflective practice to acquire more diverse input, do a better job of interpretation, and actively find errors in thinking.

In the continuous exercise of prioritisation and intentionality we (consciously or otherwise) steer the forms of knowledge that we surface, but to move beyond the capabilities of am individual mind we also need to learn to live with different viewpoints and learn how to work together to synthesise a greater truth.

This work is inherently collaborative, and often “messy”, it doesn’t fit well into work cultures that are focused on deeply-structured work and progress measures. Even more challenging, she writes: Forming new knowledge requires you to be open to whole people, not just the facet of their expected role. It can also be ephemeral; if you don’t work to keep them, good thoughts vanish again.

Her call to action is:

not about the first-order “how to make knowledge together,” but rather about how we can promote culture change to appropriately value social meaning-making and reflective practice.

  1. Recognize that it takes active resistance for interpretation spaces to thrive in tech orgs. There is such a strong pull in our work systems to decompose work that it’s borderline revolutionary to center integration and meaning instead. It is likely to be uncomfortable and probably won’t be directly rewarded.
  2. Notice the conditions under which you are a not good as a knowledge-maker (e.g. early mornings, after too many other meetings). Avoid collaboration under those circumstances, because it reinforces the devaluation of collaborative spaces.
  3. Positively reinforce the meaning-making parts in meeting spaces. Example: “this conversation was valuable — I’d hadn’t realized we were using different definitions!”
  4. Negatively reinforce the one-way or mechanical tasks in shared spaces Examples: shift simpler communciations to written or recorded media, ringfence reading time for others if necessary, and most importantly, lead by actually reading what others communicate to you async.
  5. Be mindful of zoom levels and different cognitive tasks.
  6. Resist the urge to fill in the hunger for meaning with lists and tasks. Conversations with these as a primary focus are the empty calories of a working life. Fair play if they exist to provoke the useful conversations, though.
  7. Shift personal development away from project management mechanics like backlog management or forecasting and towards knowledge and communication topics like facilitation, collaborative decision-making, effective writing.
  8. Get inspired by learning collectives.

Elizabeth closes by asserting that the common meme of “meetings aren’t work” completely reinforces (and is therefore reinforced by) the capitalist / Taylorist split of employees between “thinkers” and “doers”:

That’s toxic productivity culture speaking. That’s the dominant power structure trying to preserve a split between thinkers and doers. It’s a perspective that rejects the dignity of knowledge work and of your colleagues as knowers

Initial Reflection

I found this a timely piece of reading - although I am currently focused on how we can help colleagues get better at their individual sense-making, that is but a step on the journey towards a better collective sense-making around shared challenges.

Elizabeth’s post contains some bold links to some very big philosophical (and other) concepts - to be frank without her familiarity with those writings I found it a little hard to follow the thread at points. Intuitively the conclusions are right, but I think that if we are to influence others then we need to do more work to join the dots in an accessible way.

#100DaysToOffload 22/100

Proactive application of technology to business

My interests include technology, personal knowledge management, social change