All posts tagged Parkinson’s Principle

Teach that Meeting: Cues from the classroom for managing meetings


Ever feel that way?

A recent National Public Radio (NPR) report highlighted the proliferation and dysfunction of meetings in American work culture. While the report focused on corporate settings, many of the observations felt discomfortingly familiar.

The report suggested managers remember the Parkinson’s principle as an antidote to ineffective meetings. Introduced humorously and somewhat anecdotally in a 1955 essay in The Economist, Parkinson’s principle has some research to support it—  including most of our daily experience.

The principle, in short, is this: Tasks expand to fill the time we give them.

In the classroom, this can be good news. If (assuming I’m a competent facilitator) I give my sophomores 50 minutes to examine the role of consumerism in the American Christian worldview, there’s a good chance we’ll engage the issue thoroughly and multifariously—the task will grow to fill the time.

If, however, I’m in a department meeting and our task is determining who’s teaching general education courses next term, without some management, the task could grow to fill the hour. We’ve all seen it happen: The announcements fill ¾ of the meeting, leaving the main business a rushed 10 minutes before it gets bumped to the next meeting—in which ¼ of that meeting will be spent trying to remember what we discussed last time.

At this point, the related Parkinson’s Law of Triviality saunters in. This related principle, sometimes called “bikeshedding,” summarizes our tendencies to devote our time to trivial, easily understood issues rather than important complex ones. The classic example cites a nuclear power plant approval committee arguing over materials for a bike shed.

The average American worker spends 9 hours a week—more than one full workday— dealing with project update meetings. Thankfully, many of us average that monthly rather than daily (as long as we’re only counting department, committee and module meetings). But if higher ed. is being forced to deal in efficiencies, I think we’d all rather trim our administrative tasks than our teaching tasks.

Some departments have disciplinary expertise in meeting management, but most of us made it to the academy on principles of inefficiency— they let us in here because we can take an achingly specific subject and address it in thousands of words.

So how can we use our skills as teachers—practices present in all disciplines– to better manage our meetings and avoid all kinds of Parkinsons?

Next time you’re elected to run a meeting (or volunteer— blessings upon you), consider implementing a few effective strategies from teaching:

Focus on objectives
Consider chucking the agenda and instead identifying objectives. Objectives contain motivating and focusing verbs that can clarify direction and participants’ roles in the interaction. Consider, for example, an agenda listing “Internship connections” vs. an objective to “Identify new potential internship connections.”

Distribute materials for review ahead of time. If people haven’t been able to engage the material before the meeting, postpone the discussion  rather than using meeting time as reading time. We’ve all seen that student trying to skim the chapter as class starts—how insightful is his or her contribution to the discussion?

Announce at the end
Email and handouts are ideal vehicles for conveying information—less so for discussion and decision-making. If anything falls off the agenda, let it be announcements, which can easily be distributed in other forms. Making announcements at the end of a meeting (class) also matches the information to the listeners’ point of need: anyone with questions or business relevant to the announcements can address those individually as the meeting adjourns.

Utilize group work
Chairs and minute-takers are routine in our meetings, but formalizing roles—and including a timekeeper—can encourage productive interaction. In the classroom, we warn our students when it’s time to wrap up, give a nudge when conversation lulls, and ensure turn-taking. That last one is especially difficult with peers (or bosses). If utilizing a human timekeeper is politically complicated, outsource to a cell phone—set an alarm to remind everyone when it’s time to move on or to wrap up. Formalizing roles can be socially awkward, but it assures a meeting is steered by the business at hand rather than by the relational dynamics of the group (like who’s asking whom to Nikdag).

Get feedback
NPR’s report struck me personally when it claimed most meeting leaders 1) never solicit feedback or 2) continue despite nonverbal feedback that attendees are disengaged. I’m guilty on both counts. Teaching in a vacuum is guaranteed irrelevancy; why should I expect facilitating a meeting to be any different?

What meeting management strategies work well in your department and on your committees? How do you avoid Parkinson’s principle– in meetings or in the daily grind of university work?