Thursday, June 21, 2007

Running meetings differently

When I began as a librarian, I attended some training (I can’t now recall who offered it), on how to run an efficient meeting. I recall being told how important it was to have an agenda, manage the speaking so nobody dominates, keeping to a schedule (no more than an hour, usually), and having clear decisions and measurable tasks by the end of the meeting. That’s pretty good. I sat through some painful staff meetings when I was a lawyer; my managing attorney really ran lousy meetings. There are lots of handouts and advice sites on the web that run along these lines. See here for example – from Washington State’s Department of Health.

But two different ideas about improving meetings recently converged in my attention. First, National Geographic magazine ran an article in the June, 2007 issue about the Genius of Swarms. Programmers and others are studying the ways in which ants, bees, and other large groups of animals make decisions.

One professor in the article explains that when honey bees swarm, the decision about a new location for the hive is made by consensus. Various bees fly around the neighborhood where the swarm, queen inside, is settled on a tree branch. When they find a potential nest-site – a hollow tree or a bee box – they fly back to the swarm. As they do with nectar sources, the explorer bees dance and waggle to indicate the distance, direction and their enthusiasm for their find. Other bees fly off to inspect. If they agree it’s a good site, they will congregate near the entrance. If not, they fly off to look at another site. When fifteen bees have congregated at a potential nest site, researchers say that’s the tipping point, and consensus will settle on that location for the new hive.

This professor has extracted some principles from the bee behavior and applied them to running department meetings at his university. He says, the important thing is to never enter the meeting with a target outcome. Everybody enters with an open mind, even if they have strong opinions. Every one openly shares their thoughts in a mutually respectful manner, and uses a secret ballot. He finds the meetings go faster and have better outcomes. His job is to moderate the meeting, not to guide or push it. I was very struck by this, since it matches my own experience with meetings, even large ones, where people hold widely varying opinions, you can get a good consensus and outcome by letting the conversations and questions flow. Eventually, people start to come together around one outcome or another, and you reach consensus without tears or shouting.

Now, I stumble across Open Space meeting methods. This is mentioned briefly in yesterday’s post about Unconferences. Open Space actually began in the early 1980's and seems to be the philosophy behind Unconferences. I will post a separate entry on Open Space, which meshes amazingly, with the wisdom of bees, as laid out above.

Diagram of a honeybee dance regarding nectar sources is courtesy of University of California, Riverside, at

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