There Are Too Many Meetings

Attention! Master Jizo asked Hogen, “Where have you come from?”

 “I pilgrimage aimlessly,” replied Hogen.

 “What is the matter of your pilgrimage?” asked Jizo.

 “I don’t know,” replied Hogen. 

“Not knowing is the most intimate,” remarked Jizo. 

At that, Hogen experienced great enlightenment.  — Case 20, from the Shōyō Roku (The Book of Equanimity).

Good people are telling me there are too many meetings.

“I don’t have enough time to get my work done.” 

This complaint can be heard throughout our schools, but it really gets my attention when I hear it from our most valued leaders. Maybe we should get rid of the meetings. 

Maybe we should first look at how to make the meetings better.

We found a helpful idea referenced in a recent issue of Harvard Business Review, entitled “How do you know if there are too many people in your meeting?” The authors suggested applying the rule of 8, 18, and 1800. 

Their point is that decision-making meetings should be limited to 8 people, groups with up to 18 participants could engage in effective brainstorming, and that 1800 or more people could participate in a meeting whose purpose is to “rally the troops.”

Several years ago, we introduced a Management Meeting as a forum where our leadership team, particularly school principals and department heads, could thrash out policy and operational questions which have broad impact. Additionally, we invited selected rising leaders to participate in order to expose them to the issues we hoped they would soon address themselves. This formal meeting became necessary as we grew. 

In our first years, there were only three of us with management responsibilities. We shared an open, Bloomberg-style bull-pen office, and there was no need at all for formal meetings. We were, in effect, always in a meeting.

By the time we heard of the 8-18-1800 rule, we had grown from one school with 75 students to three schools with almost 1,000 students. Well over 20 people attended the Management Meeting. 

Some of our most effective leaders asked to be excused, meetings were running over, and we did accomplish much. 

More and more, we heard the complaint, “There are too many meetings!”

So, we stopped the meetings. There was some unhappiness. 

“We liked getting together.” 

“We miss hearing about what’s happening in other parts of the organization.”

So now we have reintroduced an occasional Management Meeting with a focus on brain-storming. A recent meeting, focused on possible new business opportunities, was fun and productive.

We also created an Executive Cabinet which meets weekly. Five people instead of twenty, this meeting has been productive beyond our expectations, and in unanticipated ways, too. 
Previously, we operated in a rather traditional and hierarchical way. One of the vice presidents would come to me to review a proposed plan for a critical decision. We would kick it around, tweak it a bit, and then decide to move forward.

Soon after the creation of the Executive Cabinet, something surprising happened. When we shared a decision which had been made in this way with the other cabinet members, new concerns quickly emerged. 

The following two meetings, which involved the cabinet and several other administrators, resulted in a dramatically different outcome — one everyone felt better about. Our take away from this experience is that all personnel decisions involving Assistant Principals, Principals, and Department Heads must be brought to the Executive Cabinet for review. 

Later, we decided that all mid-year terminations must be brought to the Executive Cabinet as well.

It seems that we have invented our own “Rule of Two” — two people are too few to make crucial decisions. This broader decision-making process is taking root at ICS. We have added an Education Cabinet to share collective oversight of our instructional programs. 

Both cabinets are proving to be efficient management tools — though there is some concern that the Education Cabinet may now be taking too much time. Maybe it has already grown too large.

The effectiveness of the Executive Cabinet led us to change our emergency plans which address sudden leadership disruptions. As opposed to our previous policy, which called for one of our trustees to quickly relocate from California to lead ICS in the event that something happened to me, our plan now is for the Executive Cabinet to assume interim leadership until our trustees could select a permanent replacement.

Our meetings are much more effective now. And, some people are now freed from meetings where they felt their participation was not vital.

We have been making the meetings better, but they still take a lot of time. 

Isn’t there a more efficient way of making decisions? Wouldn’t things work better if I just made more decisions myself?

People on our team have taken to describing me as “our visionary.” That makes me picture a spiritual leader who scales a mountain to commune with God. He then climbs back down to share his vision of eternal truths with the followers. 

Yet, my visions are only glimpses of something. Dreams written down during random moments of the day, they are more often “crazy” than useful or inspiring. How do we separate the inspirations from the duds? 

Meetings, of course. 

More often than not, the ideas that emerge are significant improvements on the “glimpse” which triggered the discussion.

My job is to push the thinking and discussion forward. At the heart of this practice is the spirit of Not Knowing, the spirit of Roshi Bernie’s, “It’s just my opinion, man.” 

Even my most strongly felt “visions” are just opinions, my view from one perspective. 

These are the only eyes I can see through.