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The documentation of meetings is trivial. Isn’t it? Just find someone to take the notes, for instance, the most junior person on the call who cannot say 'no'. Why not the intern?
Only, it isn’t. If they were trivial, minutes would hold the necessary information and arrive on time, at least most of the time. In many organizations on many occasions, the minutes are less than perfect or come late. Where documentation is good, this is usually because someone in the meeting or the hierarchy takes documentation seriously. To the effect that someone serious is appointed to take the notes, then writes them up properly and shares them as a matter of priority. Excellent. But only if we are willing to pay the price for this priority: Proper minutes for a non-trivial meeting take more time to write than most people think. They presuppose that the minute taker knows the names of everyone for certain. And let’s be honest, in a web conference, unless they give their name every time, or you know each other well, it is hard to keep track of who exactly is talking just now.
The comprehensiveness paradox
And then there is the issue of just how good such notes can be. Except for professional stenographers (so few of them these days) even a skilled note taker will only capture the gist of a conversation. Gist means: Their understanding of what was said (in essence) and concluded. This is necessarily subjective and incomplete, just to avoid saying ‘biased’.
Unless everybody is truly relaxed, attempts at being comprehensive and giving a true impression of how the discussion went can backfire. Because they attempt the almost impossible, attempts at comprehensiveness invite comments such as “If you mention her saying this, then you must also mention me raising that”. Not that that’s the end of it. It continues with, “That’s not what I (she) said” and “That’s not how I said it’ or even “That’s not what I meant”. Need we go into the subtleties of irony and sarcasm and how they might be reflected in the minutes?
It almost doesn’t matter whether such objections are actually raised or only play in peoples’ heads. They undermine the authority of the record and everything else said in it to the tune of “If this is wrong and that is wrong, why bother with the rest?” To avoid this mess, the minutes are often reduced to the bare minimum, the ‘conclusions’ and the ‘actions’. Just recording the results has the added benefit of being much faster to write and circulate. and is ok if the upshot of each discussion is properly summarized by the chairperson in the meeting, which isn’t easy (learn more). It is not quite so ok if it is left to the minute taker to determine the outcome of discussions after the meeting. That may well shift the political efforts of participants from the discussion (where it belongs) to the minutes (hmm, well).
One of the prerequisites of minute taking as we know it is the process of the meeting being linear and not too fast. “Please just one person talks at a time, otherwise I can’t keep up”.
So what, isn’t that how we operate in our meetings? Well, yes and no. In traditional meetings, only one person can talk at a time (learn more) and there are many reasons why what is said is not necessarily what people think (learn more). This makes deliberation not just slow but sometimes forces the real discussion outside the meeting or conference. People have their conversations in twos and threes, where they are more comfortable and feel at liberty to be more open about their ideas, motives and observations.
From a perspective of documentation this is worst case. Such deliberately informal multi-threaded conversations cannot be recorded. They are willfully ‘under the radar’. At best (or worst) such side discussions are documented in personal memos which keep track of arrangements and favors owed.
A Loss of context
Reduction of the minutes to conclusions and actions comes at a price even if perfectly executed. A good discussion produces a lot more than just a conclusion which is, of course, its most immediate result. Beyond that, a good discussion or brainstorming produces context and lots of useful information. After all, that discussion or brainstorming or multi-criteria analysis was by people specifically invited to and entrusted with deliberating that issue.
Let’s look at two situations in which this loss of information might matter quite a bit.
Do we need to think again?
The very word ‘conclusion’ says it: Discussions must not go on forever. At least certain aspects should be closed, laid to rest, so that the conversation, the group, the project, the organization can move on. This ‘moving on’ can take many forms. The discussion moves on because certain things can now be taken as a shared assumption as in “We have agreed that this or that is so, which now leads us to …”. Without such closure complexity quickly becomes overwhelming, progress impossible. One can only hold so many balls in the air at any one time.
On the other hand, however necessary such shared assumptions and decisions are for making progress, they must not become dogma, stand in the way of fresh thinking or changing tack when necessary. When the situation shifts, new information becomes available, intentions change. When this happens, surely only fools would insist on yesterday’s conclusions.
Or would they? Revisiting conclusions and decisions comes at a cost: The time invested in revisiting past discussions rather than resolving all those other not-yet addressed pressing issues. The negative knock-on effects on the decisions and initiatives built on those foundations which suddenly become dubious. In other words: Casting doubt on past conclusions without good cause can be just as careless as assuming their eternal validity unthinkingly.
This is difficult. What if one could actually review how that conclusion/decision was reached? What information was available at the time? How was it evaluated? Why were certain aspects of the situation judged more important than others? And then, if necessary, kick off that new discussion with something like: “When we last discussed this, we were not aware of …” or “… we did not attribute importance to factor X which has turned out to be critical” and possibly “Let’s also discuss why we missed that fact …”.
Sometimes there are good reasons for not sharing the rationale of decisions with those tasked with their implementation. However, in most cases there are no such reasons. Indeed, if those charged with implementation were not present in the meeting, it is good practice to brief them not just on the ‘what’ and the ‘by when’ but also on the ‘why’.
And not without reason. The implementation team needs to make decisions. Individually and collectively. These decisions are more likely to go in the right direction if they know the intentions behind their ‘mission’, what the military calls ‘commander’s intent’. That knowledge of intent turns, of course, on the quality of the briefing. All too often, if the matter is urgent, the first tone-setting briefing will occur before the minutes are out. Even if the minutes are available, explanation of the ‘why’ will rely on how the person who does the briefing remembers it. This is, again, subjective and subject to further filtering by what that person thinks (the leader of) the implementation team needs to know. That is unless the minutes hold more than just the conclusions and the ‘actions’.
To put it more bluntly: Most minutes – for all the good reasons discussed above – throw away key information on perhaps the most important stakeholders of the implementation project. What was their awareness of the situation when they made that decision? What exactly is important to them? Why? Do they all share that view or are we, the implementation team, dealing with several sets of intentions and expectations? And so on.
By omission, most traditional minutes entrust this key stakeholder information to oral tradition.
Who trusts oral tradition?
Oral traditions can be great and some of mankind’s greatest cultural achievements are based on it. Think of the foundation myths. Think Gilgamesh. Think Iliad and Odyssey. Think Edda, Beowulf or King Arthur. Think modern urban myths. All entertaining and perhaps even spiritually rewarding. But they all leave us guessing how much ‘truth’ is in them. What was actually the case?
Which is possibly not the situation we should impose on those we task with implementing what we want. If they are willing and diligent and have the time, meaning at best, they will do the required second-guessing in some proper stakeholder analysis and then engage with the decision makers to recover some of that lost information. If they care a little less or don’t have the time or can’t access the decision makers, they may just do as they think best without asking questions. Worst case, they’re cynical and implement as they please. Ever heard of projects that delivered something else?
Wouldn’t we rather have implementers fully aware of our reasoning and our intentions? Without having to dig out that information again? Wouldn’t it be great, if our delegates could, if necessary, point out information we clearly weren’t aware of at the time or ask about gaps they see in our reasoning? Wouldn’t we rather share the info we hold and have a good forward-looking conversation based on that?
If only we had it. Which brings us back to the comprehensiveness of our meeting records.
MeetingSphere holds the discussion in the ‘room’
If they insist, MeetingSphere cannot prevent people from making deals and having private conversations ‘under the radar’, outside the meeting or conference. How could it?
What MeetingSphere can do and does is enable participants to
right there in the meeting. Efficiently and much faster than possible by talking in turn.
MeetingSphere does away with most excuses for seeking arrangements and fixing things elsewhere.
MeetingSphere workspaces are self-documenting
At the speed of MeetingSphere, traditional note taking is not possible. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be. MeetingSphere is fast because it replaces talking with writing. As many thousand participants can attest to, in writing, 20, 30 or more participants can contribute and interact with each other all at the same time.
Writing also means that all contributions are captured in the system and can be turned into a fully formatted Word report or an Excel file by pressing a button (learn more). Such a report is
which lets the (former) minute taker do other work
which saves any discussion on what was really said and how
which means you can pass on the relevant bits when you delegate implementation
which eliminates the interim period where people work from memory or private notes
Might just be the ticket. Unless, of course, you prefer the imaginative richness of the oral tradition.