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Meetings and More Meetings

“Meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything.” John Kenneth Galbraith

No one likes meetings and yet face to face meetings seem to get things done. We all know a lot about meetings even if we are new to digital humanities so they are a form of management with which everyone is usually comfortable, even if bored. How can meetings be run to minimize the frustrations and maximize the achievement?

Why have meetings?

In my experience regular meetings are the best way to keep a project on track. Regular meetings set a pace to the project and ensure a basic level of communication. Some of the reasons for meetings include:

  • Regular meetings allow a team to set a pace to the work they do. Within a few months the team will develop a sense of what to expect from each other from week to week. There is really no better way to get a complex project done on time without stress than to do it bit by bit, breaking down tasks, communicating tasks, sharing achievements and adapting plans. Meetings create lightweight regular expectations.
  • People tend to get things done for meetings if they know they will have to report back. They are a flexible form of deadline setting and reporting.
  • Meetings allow others, including you, to manage the management. If you don't like planning things regular meetings allow you to manage by talking with others about the management of the project. It allows others who may have ideas or even (gasp) more experience, to gently manage you by suggesting what should be done in a timely fashion.
  • They ensure communication of tacit knowledge. Those of us with more experience forget how much tacit knowledge we have. If you are the manager it is tempting to just want to order people to do things you know how to do. Regular meetings help people new to digital humanities projects pick up the jargon and acquire the tacit knowledge. This is especially true if there are a mix of people at these meetings so that graduate students regularly hear programmers talking about what they do and programmers hear graduate students talking about the content issues.
  • Meetings allow peer-to-peer communication. As manager you may think that the only communication needed is between you and those you want to do your bidding, but often the more important communication is between the people doing the work. It is tempting to want to run a project by issuing orders and checking results and such centralized management ensures that you are needed even if you don't do anything other than manage. Resist the temptation and take pleasure in a project that could run without you.
  • People need to know the big picture. Meetings allow people involved in subtasks to hear what others are doing so they see the larger picture of what the team is trying to achieve. This helps them work more efficiently and effectively.
  • They provide a form of flexible deadlines with feedback. If ask someone to do a task without any reporting back you will almost always be disappointed by the result. Without feedback they will have to unnecessarily guess at what is desired and they are likely to leave it to the last moment just as you do. In regular meetings you can ask for short verbal progress reports that let you provide feedback early and give them confidence they are on the right track.
  • Regular meetings create a friendly audience for tasks. One reason why people get things done for meetings is that it is always more enjoyable to do things for others so that they can appreciate the work than to do it alone for the sake of deadline. Another reason is that we generally don't want to disappoint each other. If all the task communication is strictly between the manager and staff then those doing work will only have an audience of one which gets tedious for both. Good work should be shared, that's the point of projects - to do interesting things that others can benefit from in some way.
  • Praise and shame are powerful motivators and meetings provide a place for people to praise each other's work and gently shame others into helping the project.

Many of these virtues can be achieved by management practices other than meetings, but meetings take relatively little work to achieve much and, we are all experienced at meetings so you aren't asking people to learn new tricks like elaborate project management software.

One way to run a meeting

I tend to run meetings informally, but that's because I don't have the time to carefully plan meetings. At the start of the meeting I ask everyone what we need to cover. The trick is to quickly get a sense of what has to be covered and to create a rough agenda before you get into an in depth discussion of any one topic that takes up the time allotted. You can also get a sense of what issues are a priority and should therefore be covered first before we get distracted. We then work our way through the agenda, though we often don't cover everything. If you have regular meetings that means you should devote some time at the end to acknowledging what was not covered, discussing how it should be dealt with, and outlining what will be done at the next meeting (including things moved from the current one.)

Some suggestions for making such meetings work better:

  • Limit meetings to an hour and create the expectation that it will not go over.
  • Try to guide people back to the agenda if they get off, but recognize when an important issue is brought up.
  • Try to make sure everyone has a chance to talk.

Types of Meetings

There are, of course, different types of meetings and it is useful sometimes to be clear when a meeting has to take a particular form. For example, certain meetings may call for a formal vote and that should be made clear. Here are some types of meetings:

  • Check-in meetings are those where you go around and everyone updates the team as to progress on their tasks. Make sure everyone gets a chance to describe what they are up to and ask for feedback.
  • Brainstorming meetings those when you develop ideas. Everyone should understand that brainstorming is to generate ideas, not criticize them.
  • Presentation meetings are those where one or two people will present significant work. Time should be allotted to those presentations and discussion. Don't try to do too much other stuff when someone has worked hard to get to the point of presenting results.

What can go wrong at meetings?

All sorts of things can go wrong with meetings, but the main problem is boredom. If there are too many people or some people (like you, the manager) dominate the meeting then it ceases to serve its function and people stop caring about them.

When not to use meetings?

There are a number of interactions that can take place at meetings, but should probably be taken "offline". These include:

  • Close interaction between two people over some issue. In a meeting it will often emerge that two people need to have an extended discussion to sort something out. That discussion often starts in the meeting. As chair of a meeting you need to sense when it would be best to ask them to meet separately. Often you can ask them just to stay after the meeting to sort it out.
  • Disciplining someone who is not meeting deadlines can take place in a meeting, but you have to be sensitive to their feelings, especially if you want to find a way to help them contribute. There is a tacit shaming that happens when someone shows up over and over without their tasks done and you can gently draw attention to that, but it is best to not embarrass someone in a meeting. As much as it might work once or twice, and it can be satisfying when you are frustrated, it rarely achieves much and you usually are not going to make a good call at the spur of the moment. It is best to not shame them without goin for a long walk and thinking about what you really want to achieve and whether you aren't being hypocritical.
  • Formal presentation of information can happen in meetings, but can also be moved to more formal functions. One of the pleasures of research meetings is when people present knowledge so that you learn. Research meetings at their best become a form of symposium where everyone learns; nonetheless you should consider moving longer formal presentation to advertised events so that the presenters get a larger audience.


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