Meeting differently

Meetings are the essential currency of action and transaction in any mid-scale or large institution. ‘Yes, let’s meet to discuss that – I’ll haven’t got time now – I’ll set something up.’ If one were to dig into the circumstance behind that all too familiar sentence, one might find that the obstacle preventing said person from meeting other said person was that said person was actually meeting other persons. A somewhat restrictive pattern emerges…

In my experience, formalised meetings fall into three large categories. I’m sure there are others, but these are the bulk of what I tend to experience;

  • The transactional exchange where one is updated/ updates others on stuff.
  • The committee where the group collectively debates/ discusses stuff presented and (hopefully) arrives at actions.
  • The creative exchange/ workshop where new ideas/problems (stuff) are generated/ tested/ solved.

I’ll come back to these in a moment, but in the meantime, my mind has just butted in with tangential, but related musings which will hopefully come back together in a minute or two nearer the end of this post…

Tangent 1

My PA is brilliant. My job at Salford is the first time in my professional life where I’ve worked with a PA. Emma and I have been working together for a little while now. Emma is brilliant because she has declared a renewed war on my diary and challenged me to be better and more efficient with my time. On our first day working together, there was a mixture of shock, amusement and pity coupled with a clear resolution to make things change. And change they have. 5 or so months on, I am beginning to experience these strange occasional spaces in my diary – pure clean white time, unruffled by the colour-coded blocks that tell me I should have been somewhere else about 5 mins ago. Here’s the revelation (to me at least – I may be behind the curve here); I’m no less visible around campus (very important for my role to work well) and I’m no less productive (if anything, it’s the opposite). Simply put, Emma has taken time to carefully work out where I could let meetings go and then ‘helped’ me let them go, always with the open door offer of adhoc contact should the need arise.

Looking at these meetings, now conspicuous by their absence, it’s interesting to note that they were pretty much all sitting in the first category.

Tangent 2

We’re living in exciting times at Salford. We’ve recently reworked our ten-year vision and subsequently we’ve re-imagined our academic strategy and functional strategies to support this, all kicking off with gusto in September 2016.

We’re currently in the process of working out how best we put this into practice (definitely more to come in future posts). As I’m primarily connected with the Education and Student Experience strategy, one task I’m engaged with is developing the pedagogical distinctiveness and the particular philosophy of practice at Salford (definitely, definitely more to come).

In considering the meeting categories, it’s quite interesting to compare them to a couple of popular teaching modes…

  • Transactional exchange = lecture, or knowledge transmission
  • Committee = seminar discussion
  • Creative exchange/ workshop or working group = experiential problem based learning

Hopefully not too frustratingly, I’m going to resist the somewhat compelling desire to expand further on what this might tell us about developing pedagogical direction and leave this topic hanging at the moment (focus, Sam, focus – definitely more to come).

Back to meetings…

So, whilst meetings of the first type are useful, I think it’s debatable that physical presence in the same room is actually always needed. (I’m not suggesting recourse to more email, but a smarter use of conferencing software and technology, which requires a basic shared digital literacy)

Meetings of the second and third type are interesting and often creative. I find the most useful aspect of them is the exchange – the interplay between people and the thoughts that emerge. However, I often feel that the possibilities within this interaction don’t quite fully blossom. These meetings are always scheduled and planned sometimes a year or so ahead. They often have terms of reference attached, quite rightly used to focus efforts. And there is never quite enough time. I often barrel into the room, trailing echoes of the previous interaction behind me – the first minutes of the meeting are then inevitably spent trying to get ones head quickly into the correct space. Similarly for myself and other colleagues there is frequently the ‘can I just catch you’ conversation afterwards. In a previous life as a performer I’d have called these bits ‘checking in/ checking out’ – the process of warm up/focusing and then warm down before/ after rehearsal.

I guess what I’m pointing at is that the format and structure of these meetings doesn’t encourage creative thinking/doing. There is limited opportunity for the unexpected to occur or for the tangential to crowbar in ‘aha!’ moments. The agenda rules. Time is precious. There is little room for serendipity.

What’s also interesting is that these meetings represent a significant channel through which the complex entity of the university interacts with itself. There is limited opportunity or means outside these channels to reach out to the wider university in a manner that offers the potential for a connected, yet freer exchange. The casual network is also somewhat fragmented. Breaking the (self imposed) silo is tough. It’s sometimes quite problematic to actually find out the full breadth of work being undertaken along a particular theme and how this might meaningfully connect to/ inform another. I’m (literally) amazed on a weekly basis as I discover that this academic, or these students, or this services team have achieved this or that, or created the other.

So what if we began to think differently? What if we increasingly operated as an organisation by taking some influence from Teal or Environmental organisational approaches – and developed a considered autonomy built around an invitation to creativity? What if the impromptu, accidental and random happening was structurally nurtured – systematic encouragement of the short touch points, the guerrilla get-togethers and the lightbulb conversations in which there are no formal agendas. What if we built engagement networks and spaces to deliberately foster chance and serendipity and what if these ‘meetings’ steered the university? What if this fleeting, corridor creativity became the driving interaction of the institution and the meetings of categories 2 and 3 were honed and refined to become the lesser prominent force – still there, of course, still inventing, but a supportive structure to engender the creative semi-autonomous working of a university-as-ensemble which thrived on an agile mode of interaction rather than a formalised transaction?

Happily, as we develop our thinking, we are now starting to work towards creating these spaces. I think we’re beginning to meaningfully scratch the surface of the implications inherent in such direction. And its exciting place to be. Whilst the ‘to be’ situation isn’t a million miles away from where we are now, it’s already becoming clear that in the coming months and years, as we bring the vision to life, we’re going to need to adjust and shift our habitual working practicesSo towards this, I’m looking forward to continuing to work alongside creative colleagues in developing the means, ways and channels to meet each other differently. Maybe we might meet less to transact, and more to exchange, and maybe we touch base more often and spend less time in formal agendas. 

‘Why can’t we make a workplace where casual meetings are as important as working at your desk?’ Sometimes that’s where your better creative work happens.’

         David Chipperfield

As I wrap up this entry, a final thought for this entry pops into my head; a personal snapshot.

I met my wife on a bus. I’d woken up late and would have normally taken the previous service. I think that undoubtedly remains one of the best meetings of my life. We haven’t yet got round to drafting an agenda.