How Do Organizations Hold Orderly Meetings And Communicate Information?

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Saturday, 7.51pm

Sheffield, U.K.

As a leader, you must consistently drive effective communication. Meetings must be deliberate and intentional – your organizational rhythm should value purpose over habit and effectiveness over efficiency. – Chris Fussell

If you have ever watched “Yes Prime Minister” you will know how governments really work, how the engines of administration move the machinery of democracy along. These systems have worked for a long time so it’s worth having a look at why and how they evolved. In fact, everything starts to make a bit more sense when you look at things through the lens of how people have settled on ways to agree what to do next.

Let’s start with a thought experiment. You’d like to start a business and retain 100% of control – be dependent on no one else for anything. That sounds quite appealing, doesn’t it, you’re your own boss, you don’t report to anyone and you don’t need to care what anyone else thinks. This is freedom – liberty.

Now, if everyone thinks like that you’re going to have to live in shells – self-contained units that have everything and need nothing, only going out to forage for stuff, or grabbing what floats by. That’s not much of an existence, and the creatures that do it to a high standard spend their lives not really doing anything much. Your hero is probably something like a clam.

As humans, we don’t live like that. But what kind of society would you live in if you had a choice. This is the question that exercised John Rawls, a liberal American moral and political philosopher, who suggested that you should think about what kind of society you would go for if you didn’t know what position you would have in that society. For example, would you opt for a society that had slavery if you didn’t know whether you would be born a slave or a master? His approach boils down to justice as fairness – is what goes on in a society fair?

One of the most fundamental ways to judge fairness is by evaluating the quality of access to information available to people in a community or society. Information is power and the people to control access to information have the power.

In “Yes Minister”, this point is made very early on. Once people realized that it was much easier to win what you wanted by writing a document than by pulling out swords and going to war – people started to use it to get their own way. “He who drafts the document wins the day”, writes Jim Hacker. This is the reason the civil service in Yes Minister write the minutes of meetings before they have been held to make sure that the right things have been decided regardless of what was said on the day. The purpose of minutes, the believe, is to present a point of view that the person in charge would have liked to emerge.

In real life, this is also a problem. People who know how the system works have an information advantage over people who don’t and they can use this to win. You think of them as wily political operators and they were around then and are around now. In the film “Vice”, you see how Dick Cheney tried to redefine what was legal in terms of what the President did. If the President did it then it was legal – and the effects of that kind of thinking are pernicious and rot away at the foundations of a society.

But, if you were trying to do it right you would do it in a way that was fair. It’s not fair just to go with a vote when there is a minority that will be negatively affected. You should try for consensus and hear all points of view. You should go for a vote reluctantly, when it’s clear that there are differences that cannot be resolved. These approaches are part of what is called deliberative democracy – which tries to make sure decisions are taken after deliberation rather than for convenience or power. Many civic institutions and governments aim for this kind of deliberative structure but of course the quality of outcome depends on the quality of people that are involved. And we’re going through a populist phase around the world where leaders are focusing on self-interest rather than group benefits and process changes alone won’t solve that.

If you did want to understand process, however, then something like Robert’s Rules of Order are worth knowing. These rules set out procedures, rights and how to make decisions. But what’s important is having time to debate before putting a matter to a vote and announcing the results. These are useful if you’re doing something at a local level rather than professional politics.

The background information here is useful because you can then look at the ways we have to get together – to assemble these days. In addition to face to face you can do this through journals and professional magazines – physical forms of communication. You can do it through email groups and a primarily textual approach. And you can do it using social media. The places where people can assemble has exploded but our ability to carry out good quality deliberative decision making has not kept pace with the changes in spaces. To some extent these new spaces are probably akin to the ungoverned cities of a few hundred years ago. And that can’t continue – you can’t have a situation where people have the liberty to do anything online without the equality that is created by fairness. It’s unfair that one group can troll or terrorize. But how can you bring fairness and deliberation back into online spaces?

One way is to choose fair spaces and step away from ones that do not make the effort. That’s perhaps the main reason why the large platforms are starting to look at content – through the impact it has on user behaviour. And, of course, society can choose what kind of society it wants to live in and make decisions that try for a fairer outcome.

What we have now is not fair and it’s not right. And that will change, over time.

But I’m not really worried about the system as a whole. I want to look at fairness in small groups, small communities, ones where we work together and I want to think about what that looks like in today’s mixed media world, online and offline.

So let’s get into that next.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

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