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The Formal Meeting Is Not Our Work.

Thoughts on transforming a museum culture away from a meeting culture.

Triggered by reading the 360 zine published by Steelcase, the office furniture manufacturer.


19 February 2010

Many staff members working in museums spend a majority of their work time at face-to-face meetings that are often unproductive.  This may be because the proper use of the meeting format is misunderstood or misapplied.  This short writing is an attempt to rethink the meeting culture of museums and make meetings more purposeful and to put more variation in their design.


Museum staff often accept two administrative assumptions that impede action and prevent forward progress.  The first is that decisions should be made by consensus; the second is that formal scheduled meetings are the process by which consensus will be reached.  Following this practice, if consensus is not reached within the meeting time allotted, then the meeting ends without solving the issue. 


Museum personnel like to think of themselves as egalitarian, with colleagues of equal value and importance.  But most museum positions are embedded in a hierarchical structure giving more weight to the opinions of those higher up the food chain.  The egalitarian aspiration and the hierarchical organization are antithetical, and nowhere is it more obvious than in the attempt to build consensus in meetings. 


Further complicating the matter, consensus is often defined as unanimous agreement.  So when objections are raised, and left unresolved, the issue cannot be regarded as adequately addressed.   Unanimity is difficult to achieve on almost any topic, hence more meetings are called to review and try to resolve the issue — often with the same inconclusive results. 


The reality is that most museum staffs don’t really believe in egalitarianism either.  One finds, in the endless meeting culture, that once a decision seems to be made in the meeting, staff corner each other in hallways (often directly after the meeting is adjourned) to relitigate the issue based on the power and persistence of the individuals involved in order to reach decisions, or overturn previously made ones.


Meetings that attempt to reach consensus often have no agenda, no time limits for discussion, and no demanded outcomes.  Based on this impasse, I have often been called upon as a consultant to train staff to understand that only one person will have the authority for the final decision.  That person can consult anyone they wish, hold the decision open for as long as they want but they will be held accountable for making it and getting it behind them.  The person chosen need not be high in the administrative hierarchy, but once identified will hear all sides, decide on the course of action, and announce it — whereupon the collective will move promptly, forward and the rules of engagement will permit reconsideration only under extraordinary circumstances.


I am now interested with the reemergence of the word “collaboration”[1] in the workplace and the need to redefine more precisely the nature and purpose of different types of museum meetings based on the collaborative model.  I draw your attention to an interesting source created by one of my favorite websites the research branch of Steelcase, the manufacturer of office furniture.  Their electronic magazine has a long article about collaboration and defines it as follows – “working as a team with a common purpose”. 


The article expands as follows:


“How collaboration became the darling of the business world helps explain its importance today. For much of the 20th century, knowledge work was seen as the office version of factory work, an information assembly line. In 1990, author Michael Schrage in Shared Minds — The New Technologies of collaboration delineated three levels of knowledge worker interaction, ranging from basic coordination (correlating data or tasks) and communicating (sharing information) to the highest level, collaboration (working as a team with a common purpose). Organizations often mistook simple interactions such as coordination (“handing this work over to you”) or communication (“keeping you up to speed”) for true collaboration.”[2]


It might be useful for museum administrators to relook at their definitions of the four alliterative words — collaboration, coordination, communication and consensus – in their meeting culture to see if they are conflating and confusing them, practicing “the need to know” (communication) rather than “solving problems” (collaboration).  And if they eliminate the word “consensus” (and the implied meaning, “unanimity”) from their operating lexicon can they change their operating culture from stasis into action? 


Steelcase believes there are so many variants of the collaboration meeting that they have designed a variety of different spaces to be used for different purposes (“open project areas, focus rooms, more intimate teaming rooms, small and large meeting rooms, casual breakout spaces, large community hubs, and formal meeting spaces.”).

The Steelcase article makes clear that all kinds of interactions should be elevated to the status of “meetings,” not just the formal agenda’d  ones, with spontaneous interaction regarded as importantly as meetings.  They speak of needing to plan collaborative activity that is random, impromptu and unplanned. “…collaboration is by definition unplannable – and invaluable. When you have those casual collisions, there’s a lot of business that gets done just from walking the hallways ….”


Steelcase understands that not all work is collaborative.  They also are writing interesting things about private office space and about formal meeting locations, but they (and I) suggest that if the “need to know” (communication) is to be addressed in face-to-face meeting form it should be so named and not masquerade as either consensus or collaboration.  That will result in informational meetings that are short and focused and not have them high-jacked by the consensus crowd. 


I hope the term collaboration will not be used by museums as a mere substitute for “consensus,” with the continuation of endless unfocused meetings without outcome.  It is time we elevate and facilitate the process of collaboration, recognizing that there are many usefully different types of meetings. The formal face-to-face meeting that has littered our calendar is not our work.  It is just a one of our tools for solving problems so that things can get done.