Higher Education’s Problem: Seven Red Lines, All Perpendicular, Some Green, Some Transparent

This video is a spot-on dramatization of many, many meetings I’ve participated in during my time in higher education. Despite (or perhaps because) being peopled by very smart souls, the tolerance for senseless gibberish makes it amazing we manage to keep going. It’s well done (and funny) enough to be worth the 7 minutes).

This British video is titled “The Expert” and it is based on a short story, Совещание, (“The Meeting“) that appeared on the blog Слон в колесе (Elephant in the wheel) by Alexei Berezin in 2011.

(STOP) Wasting Time in Meetings

A simple step colleges and universities could take to increase efficiency would be to stop wasting time in meetings.  In fifteen years at my current institution I have attended maybe two well organized and well implemented meetings.  Interesting, given that we are an academic institution, how much bad meeting behavior mirrors behavior we would flunk students for. Some examples:

  • My colleagues show up unprepared
  • Agendas not formulated, not distributed, or just ever-growing laundry lists
  • Poorly prepared background material not distributed ahead of time
  • Invite lists based inept theories of representation rather than participation
  • Lack of minutes
  • A culture in which any participant can hijack the conversation
  • No shame in contributing uninformed opinions
  • No urge to identify and work out conflicting positions
  • Decisions made by apathetic consensus

But the worst thing about our meetings is just that they are unproductive and consume gargantuan amounts of our scarcest resource: person hours.  Better meetings would waste less time and produce more/better results.

The fact of the matter is a lot is known about how to “give good meeting” as one wit once put it.  But as noted by Amy Gallo a post on the Harvard Business Review blog:

The bad news is that keeping your meeting on track takes discipline, and few people make the effort to get it right. “The fact is people haven’t thought about how to run a good meeting, or they’ve never been trained, or they’re simply too busy,”….

The really embarrassing thing about colleges as organizations is that we don’t even recognize the problem (even if we bemoan meetings, we do no critical thinking about them) and even if we do, there seems to be no interest in putting in the effort to improve things.  A little ironic that people whose work involves making abstract mountains out of molehill stuff almost no one cares about are unwilling or unable to think there might be some “science” in something so mundane as meetings.

One idea, described in a blog post by LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner is to eliminate presentations.  Instead, meetings begin with participants reading through notes or slides or a memo giving meetings the tone of a study hall.  But it’s time well spent and the participants start the conversation with equal levels of preparation (and no one feels like a chump for being the only one to do her homework) and it forces presenters to make better handouts since folks are going to be reading it right there in front of them.

It is a technique borrowed from Jeff Bezos at Amazon.  He starts meetings with up to 30 minutes of participants reading multi-page narrative memos scribbling notes in the margin before the talking part of the meeting gets under way:

Bezos says the act of communal reading guarantees the group’s undivided attention. Writing a memo is an even more important skill to master. “Full sentences are harder to write,” he says. “They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.” (Fortune.com 16 Nov 2012)

Another technique, deBono’s “Six Hats” method, was described in an October post on this blog.

Not surprisingly, a good source for ideas is the business media, especially around high tech – bad meetings impose significant and discernible costs in those environments.  In a blog post “How To Run Your Meetings Like Apple and Google” Sean Blanda gathers some meeting principles from several much admired organizations.

Two from Apple:

  1. Every project component or task has a Directly Responsible Individual whose name appears next to all of the agenda items they are responsible for.
  2. Be prepared to challenge and be challenged. 


  1. All meetings should have a clear decision maker.
  2. No more than ten people at a meeting.
  3. Decisions should never wait for a meeting.
  4. Kill ideas, and meetings. Focus more resources on fewer efforts. 
  5. Focus has to permeate every aspect of a company, including meetings.

From a variety of sources here are a few good ideas that could make a difference college and university meetings. They are simple and concrete:

  • Compute the cost of the meeting
    • Even if only as a thought experiment, multiply the time by the salaries of the attendees and have a clear picture in your head about how much of the institution’s budget you will consume in this meeting.  How many person-days of work will it eat up?  Make sure it is worth the cost.
  • Make purpose of meeting explicit and clear.  
    • Why are you gathering these people together?
  • Control the size.  
    • Invite the people who need to be there to accomplish the purpose.
  • Assign someone to take notes. Tidy them up and distribute promptly.
  • Come with solutions, not questions/problems.  
    • Meeting chair must do her/his homework and put potential solutions in front of meeting for discussion, feedback, evaluation, expansion rather than announcing problem and throwing it open for suggestions.  People do not generate good solutions on the spot.
  • When brainstorming, forbid criticism.
    • Don’t let people waste time with “war stories” (“we tried that back in 1995….”)
    • Don’t waste time flaw-finding until you have narrowed the field of options
    • Don’t encourage people who are lazy negative thinkers
  • Manage ramblers and control tangents.  
    • Model focussed participation and call out lack of focus.  
    • Focus on action, responsibility, and completion.  When conversation rambles, loses focus, bring it back with what can actually be done.
    • Don’t be afraid to call people on being broken records.
    • Structure agenda and your comments to promote focus.
  • Who is responsible? 
    • Every task needs one ultimately responsible individual.
    • Every document has a responsible author and an explicit list of contributors.
    • Invite list should include people who can do things that will be talked about.
  • Be deadline driven.  
    • Make timelines that capture actual priorities.
    • Review what people promised last time and whether it’s been done (don’t just ask for reports, as chair you should already know).
    • Cultivate a “get it done” rather than “delay until it’s perfect” culture.
  • Eschew excuses.  
    • Hold one another accountable rather than understanding why things are not done.
  • Don’t talk about meetings as work
    • Work is what happens in between meetings.  Do not valorize having a schedule that is full of meetings.

References and Resources

  1. Jeff Weiner.  “A Simple Rule to Eliminate Useless Meetings
  2. Sean Blanda. “How To Run Your Meetings Like Apple and Google
  3. Amy Gallo. “The Seven Imperatives toa post Keeping Meetings on Track
  4. Christopher Wink. “Technically Media meeting style: effective, productive and professional from home

Six Hats and Better Meetings

Almost nobody likes meetings and almost everybody will agree that precious little ever seems to get accomplished in meetings.  And yet we keep on having them.  There are a lot of ideas out there about how to improve meetings and one useful insight is that there are different kinds of meetings and some techniques work better for some kinds than for others.

One intriguing approach for meetings of collaborative teams developed by E. deBono is called “six hats.”  I first came across it when my step-son learned about it in a week-long workshop on team-work that he participated in during “Independent Activities Period” (IAP) at MIT.  They are teaching it to young engineers as a set of skills right alongside integration by parts and balancing equations.

The basic idea is to recognize that there are different genres of contribution to conversations and that it can be helpful to recognize and manage/organize these.  They are:

  • Yellow = ideas, speculation, “how about…”, “what if…”
  • Red = feelings, emotions, intuitions
  • Blue = agenda, sequence, process, rules of the road
  • Green = creative, options, alternatives
  • White = facts & figures, observations not interpretations, usuble info, checked facts
  • Black = criticism, flaw-finding, no need to be balanced or fair

Participants can self-consciously identify the kind of contribution they are making, a facilitator can ask for specific genres, or the agenda can be dedicated to a specific sequence of contribution types.

Here are some slides from a 2010 talk I gave for Division of Student Life staff on the technique:


See Also