The bi-annual planning meeting: When the phone works best.

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planning meeting
One of our previous annual planning meetings. We gathered in person. Yesterday, we gathered on the phone.
planning meeting
One of our previous annual planning meetings. We gathered in person. Yesterday, we gathered on the phone.

The corporate bi-annual “all hands on deck” staff meetings provide intriguing idea-generation and resurrection opportunities. Yesterday’s Construction News and Report Group gathering proved the point. There wasn’t an “aha” moment where the universe’s problems were solved, but several worthy ideas and old solutions were reintroduced with a fresh perspective and insights.

We’ve evolved the meetings from relatively expensive affairs, with paid facilitators and significant travel budgets, deciding to opt instead for phone teleconferencing, breaking a one-day off-site meeting into two, three-hour session, with 15 minute breaks in the middle of each session). This decision seems simple enough (I doubt anyone would want to spend six hours or more straight on a phone conversation, but there were other variables, the value of some of which I saw as the meeting progressed.

Could the meeting be conducted with local representatives in one room, and a phone link to out-of-city participants?

Yes, but the problem here relates to imbalance — especially in informal communications. There were back-channel discussions during breaks at the in-person gathering that the out-of-city participants could not see — and some of these weren’t quite fair. More painfully, we ended up paying significant travel costs for one out-of-city guest, who turned out to be utterly ineffective and is no longer with the business.

Could we use videoconferencing rather than the phone alone?

Maybe — video links through services such as Google Hangouts are inexpensive — but if not everyone is hooked up, then the same sort of disparities in connections/relationships as the “some here, some there” options apply. This isn’t good for trust in the idea-building space.

One surprising advantage of using the simple phone-based technique for this sort of meeting may be the lack of facial expression/visibility.  Undoubtedly, sometimes I’m sure colleagues “saw” my frustration with certain aspects of the meeting through tone-of-voice and the words, but this didn’t override the underlying message/idea sharing and communication process.

As well, we all had a degree of privacy during the meeting, and within reason could multi-task. There were plenty of emails as we sent/shared data, resources and information.  While we encouraged everyone to participate in the entire meeting, it wasn’t quite as disruptive as an in-person meeting for some to drop in and out as required.

There’s still value in face-to-face meetings, and I would agree that combinations of video conferencing and location-sensitive events can make sense, especially when you are dealing with project specific initiatives. Yet, the recent experience shows that dumbing down and keeping the meeting simple and phone-based can also work quite well.  You don’t always need to be state-of-the-art to succeed.

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