Meetings and Meetings

Recently I found myself in a conversation about meetings. It started with a question about how many do I attend in a week, and ended with talk about what makes a meeting worthwhile, what makes it a good use of time versus a waste of time.

During the exchange, I saw a couple of different approaches to what meetings can be. Is a meeting just a time to disseminate information, or is it a time to wrestle with tough issues, and collaborate on solutions to challenges? One is sort of a traditional way to delegate and communicate, where the boss tells the subordinates what they should know and what they should do. The other can create a climate for a team to work together. Both kinds of meetings should probably happen in most organizations, and should definitely happen in ministries.

During D8, TUAW sat down with Steve Jobs and asked him a few questions, including ones about what he does and how Apple runs. This response was very interesting:

“One of the keys to Apple is that Apple is an incredibly collaborative company. You know how many committees we have at Apple? Zero. We’re organized like a startup. We’re the biggest start up on the planet. We meet for three hours every morning and talk about all the business, about what’s going on everywhere. We’re great at figuring out how to divide things up into great teams, and we talk to each other. So what I do all day is meet with teams of people.”

Apparently Apple operates in a sort of knowledge-is-power, transparency-breeds-trust, change-needs-champions kind of way. (I mean those in the best way possible.) In that climate, every employee knows the vision, and feels like a part of the solution. I doubt anyone was left out, sitting around wondering why the iPhone 4 had a front facing camera. It’s team work, and in a company that is focused on innovating new technology it’s a critical part of their success.

There are pitfalls. Someone has to be in charge, has to be casting vision. Everyone has to participate. This kind of thing can degenerate quickly. If the moderator isn’t prepared the meeting will be a waste of time. Keeping groups of people focused is a skill that many lack. Enter the meeting with clear goals in mind.

I realize that this kind of meeting is something that creative people gravitate toward. People who work in more ‘hard’ disciplines will probably want more form in their meetings. Recently I was in an impromptu meeting with a staff member from my area, and in walked someone from a different ministry area. We all three met briefly. It wasn’t a scheduled meeting, we had no agenda, but quickly worked through some issues. As he left, the newcomer commented that he had never seen one of his staff members put their feet up on the desk during one of his meetings. He was not angry or critical, just pointing out a difference in demeanor between meetings he holds and what we had just experienced. I had not even noticed my team member’s feet were propped up. I am glad we have the kind of relationship where we can be comfortable working through hard issues. My approach to teamwork lends itself toward informality rather than formality.

In a more diverse organization, the other approach is sometimes required. We all need to be aware of the direction and vision of leadership. In a church, hearing from the pastor is critical as other ministry areas make plans and prepare their programs. If God is telling the leadership to move in one direction with the church’s resources, we all need to be adjusting toward that direction.

The caution here is that too much of this kind of meeting results in a team that feels no ownership of the process, of the ministry. Anyone can see the difference in a team that was told to do something versus being allowed to collaborate on what should be done. The difference in energy, morale, and satisfaction between the two is palpable. There are some things that require singular focus and direction, and collaboration will not help. But there are times when working together can produce maximum results. The key is to be able to recognize which is which.

Every week I attend a meeting where I am told what is happening on a large scale. Every week I have meetings where teams come together and figure out how we are going to accomplish the goals before us. Every week I am told some things we are going to do. Every week I gather with small groups of people to work through challenges, and chart a course of action. Finding the balance between those is hard, but required in order to execute with excellence.