Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Small Groups of Smart People: Rethinking Our Meetings

Ken Segall wrote a good column for Fast Company about his experiences working with Steve Jobs.  Segall argues for bringing together "small groups of smart people" - avoid having a huge group of people attend key meetings.   He tells an anecdote about Steve Jobs:

One particular day, there appeared in our midst a woman from Apple with whom I was unfamiliar. I don’t recall her name, as she never appeared in our world again, so for the purposes of this tale, I’ll call her Lorrie. She took her seat with the rest of us as Steve breezed into the boardroom, right on time. Steve was in a sociable mood, so we chatted it up for a few minutes, and then the meeting began. “Before we start, let me just update you on a few things,” said Steve, his eyes surveying the room. “First off, let’s talk about iMac--" He stopped cold. His eyes locked on to the one thing in the room that didn’t look right. Pointing to Lorrie, he said, “Who are you?”

Lorrie was a bit stunned to be called out like that, but she calmly explained that she’d been asked to attend because she was involved with some of the marketing projects we’d be discussing. Steve heard it. Processed it. Then he hit her with the Simple Stick. “I don’t think we need you in this meeting, Lorrie. Thanks,” he said. Then, as if that diversion had never occurred--and as if Lorrie never existed--he continued with his update. So, just as the meeting started, in front of eight or so people whom Steve did want to see at the table, poor Lorrie had to pack up her belongings, rise from her chair, and take the long walk across the room toward the door. Her crime: She had nothing to add.

Ok, so the anecdote is powerful, but probably should not be emulated.  We don't want to run around throwing people out of meetings in this fashion.   However, the principle deserves our attention.  Keep those meetings streamlined.  We get much more done if we keep our teams small and focused.  As Segall writes, "Most people know from experience that the fastest way to lose focus, squander valuable time, and water down great ideas is to entrust them to a larger group."

I can hear the pushback already.  "But shouldn't we strive to be inclusive? Isn't that required to build buy-in?"  Sure... we have to worry about including people so as to build buy-in. However, that doesn't mean that everyone needs to be at all these meetings.  We can solicit input and advice in many ways, and still have a small group focusing on the key collaborative problem-solving task in a meeting.  

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