Demain is Chief Technology Officer at Bluescape, leading technology innovation and product strategy.
We hold meetings for every imaginable reason. The meeting is so fundamental to how we do work that we rarely think about why we meet. Meeting with other people is as natural as walking. Football players hold a meeting before every single play. As social creatures, we possess a profound ability to coordinate our actions in order to do work.
There are some people who say we need to reinvent the meeting, and there are others who say we should get rid of meetings altogether. There are even some people that believe that information bots can eliminate the need for the meeting. While we love to meet, we also loathe it.
As technology continues to disturb how we meet, we will use this paper to revisit the meeting and ask ourselves why we gather in the first place. Meetings are not going away any time soon. In a world that values speed and action, I'll take a minute here to revisit the essential purpose of meetings.
We start with a brief breakdown of six different reasons for having a meeting. The point here is to try to remember why we meet in the first place. These motivations are foundational. They are the intrinsic drivers of the meeting.
1. Share information:
Different people work on different aspects of a project or assignment. Since they often have different roles, they tend to use their own tools and maintain their own information. This is largely due to the fact that different team members have different skills and abilities. Engineers, for example, will use different tools than designers, and they will need to create and manage different information. The information gap between teams and roles can be a significant barrier to doing work, and we often hold meetings in an attempt to maintain a shared understanding of essential information.
2. Coordinate action:
Many of the meetings we attend are about bringing different teams together to share status and coordinate activity. These meetings can be very tactical and they focus on coordinating the activities of different groups, individuals or organizations that need to come together to deliver a product or service. Examples are a daily standup, a weekly staff meeting, a project status meeting, a weekly sales meeting, etc. We meet to communicate status and achieve some degree of coordinated action.
3. Develop ideas:
The need for fresh ideas is becoming essential to the very idea of doing work. Complacency has become the enemy. In a world of digital disruption and intense competition, the need for fresh ideas has moved to the top of our priorities. And so we meet to unearth new ideas. We share them, discuss them, test them, expand them and ultimately breathe life into them. In some ways, ideas can be seen as another form of information, and yet developing fresh ideas presents unique needs. Creating new ideas that will become products and services is no small feat.
4. Create alignment:
When a team is misaligned, their efforts will be uncoordinated. Their work products are not synchronized. An example that comes to mind is the 1999 Mars Rover mission where one team used the metric system and another team used imperial measures. The Mars Rover never made it to the surface, presumably burning up the atmosphere. One major reason we meet is to make sure we are in agreement and speaking the same language. When those teams also represent different disciplines and skills, the need to create alignment can be especially challenging. They might use different tools, speak different jargon or have different value systems. Alignment requires a common language
5. Develop trust:
Trust between team members can have a significant impact on how well they perform. If we constantly second-guess each other, we move slowly (if we move at all). We are afraid to make mistakes. If we are able to develop trust based on a deep understanding of one another’s skills and tendencies, a team can flourish. When we do not have trust, people become tentative and fearful. When we spend time together, we have a chance to develop trust. Certainly, there are other ways to build trust, but meeting with the other individuals and teams is a critical ingredient to trust.
6. Make Decisions
: It’s certainly possible to make decisions without meeting to discuss the topic, but that usually only happens when the power to decide rests in a single person. Even then, it can be vital that everyone involved in the implications of the decision to understand the reasoning and the process that supports the decision. Quite often the “why” is as important as the “what.” When the decision requires the input of many different individuals and roles, then it goes down in a meeting. We gather in groups to make important choices.
Meetings are complex and serve many functions. The six reasons discussed here are just a part of the story of the meeting. There has been a lot of promise that technology would help us with handling meetings. As the story goes, we wouldn’t need to travel to have those meetings -- we can just do it remotely, but this promise has not yet been met.
We have followed several different paths to achieve the technically enabled remote meeting. We tried the idea that high-quality audio and video was the secret. We have learned that good audio is much more important than good video. We have even tried remote control robots that allow us to wander the floors from far away. This has perhaps done nothing except make everyone feel creeped out. We have also learned that making the trip to be there in person communicates something essential about our commitment to each other.
Even though the tools we use are almost entirely digital now, there is still no substitute for meeting with other people in person. What we need are technologies that respect that fact and complement why we meet in the first place.