Reviewing meetings

The Economist had an article on Pixar on June 17 "Planning for the sequel". It made the point that Pixar also obliges its teams to conduct formal post mortems once their films are complete.

In lesser hands this might degenerate into a predictable Hollywood frenzy of backslapping and air-kissing. But Pixar demands that each review identify at least five things that did not go well in the film, as well as five that did.

One organization I worked in had what was called the meeting 'hotwash'. After every meeting there was a brief review spanning:

a) what went well about the meeting: things like agenda, content, participation, actions recorded
b) what went less well: things like not listening, talking over each other, paying more attention to BlackBerries than the meeting
c) what to do differently next time: things like shorten the meeting, have a timekeeper, 'have the meeting in the meeting' (that is don't leave the meeting and say something different outside it than you said inside it)

Last year the HBR Classic How to Run A Meeting, by Anthony Jay, that was first published in 1976 was reprinted. It still reads very well: the six points on why having a meeting are sound.

1. A meeting defines the team, the group, or the unit
2. A meeting is the place where the group revises, updates, or adds to what it knows as a group
3. A meeting help every individual understand both the collective aim of the group and the way in which his own and everyone else's work can contribute to the group's success.
4. A meeting creates in all present a commitment to the decisions it makes and the objectives it pursues
5. In the world of management, a meeting is very often the only occasion where the team or group actually exists and works as a group
6. A meeting is a status arena. It is no good to pretend that people are not or should not be concerned with their status relative to the other members in a group.

And I am inclined to agree with the point that
"a meeting still performs functions that will never be taken over by telephones, teleprinters, Xerox copies, tape recorders, television monitors, or any other technological instruments of the information revolution."

Perhaps that puts me firmly in the same generation as Anthony Jay, but even though the orgaisation I am currently working with has access to all the technology possible for meetings there are still many, many, face to face meetings.

Jay goes on to describe types of meetings in terms of: size, frequency, composition, motivation, and decision making processes before tackling how to conduct the meeting. What it doesn't cover, however, is how to review the meeting i.e. doing the hotwash that I mentioned at the start.

In fact, googling the phrase 'How to run a good meeting' yielded, of course, a bunch of possibilities but taking a random look only one out of about 15 mentioned 'review the meeting' (in terms of the process and content, in order to improve it the next time round).

Out of curiosity I googled 'Hotwash' and discovered – which I didn't know, that:

All military members are familiar with using exercises as a training tool. It's a tool the military utilizes on a frequent basis to ensure we are prepared to defend, rescue, react and survive in a variety of scenarios.

After the exercise an evaluation is made to determine how well the exercise went. At Dobbins this evaluation is commonly referred to as the hot wash.

"The hot wash gives units a means to get feedback on how they performed in an exercise or event," said Ms. Josephine Atkins-Scafe, Emergency Management acting chief. It provides the participants with "something tangible to take back to their units to correct any developing adverse trends that may impact resources and operations."

"The goal with any of our exercises is to train the way we fight and to assess our ability to respond to various emergency situations," said Lt. Col. John M. Vallrugo, 94th Airlift Wing performance planner and exercise evaluator team chief.

The hot wash usually occurs at the end of an exercise or operation. It can also occur at the end of each phase of an exercise or operation or at the end of each day or work shift.

"The main purpose of a hot wash is to identify strengths and weaknesses of the response to a given event," said Colonel Vallrugo. "This leads to another governmental phase known as lessons learned. This is intended to guide future responses in a direction to avoid repeating errors that were made in previous exercises."

It seems like a good practice to adopt for any meetings given the standard Dilbert view of meetings in which several people sit around a table while the meeting organizer says things like, "There is no specific agenda for this meeting. As usual, we'll just make unrelated emotional statements about things which bother us…" And which are not followed up by any process aimed at improving things.