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The secret skill revealed in the dusty booklet

Going through one’s father’s belongings after his death is always a poignant, bitter-sweet experience. I was going through his most precious books a while back; there were books that were written by him, books by friends and relatives, books about friends or relatives, books of precious poems. There was a well-thumbed  book, Treasure Island, given to him as a boy by his devoted and adored mother.  Then I came across an oddity.

It was brown, brief, almost a booklet. It was written in 1941, at the time he was an army officer on active service.  It was stained on the cover, and rather dog-eared. The Conduct of Meetings, by Cecil A Newport. I opened it up. ‘A Handbook for the Guidance of Chairmen, Secretaries, Delegates, Councillors and all those who attend Public, Business, and other Meetings’.

My curiosity was aroused. My father had a vast collection of books, yet this was in his ‘holy of holies’. I leafed through it, and was instantly gripped with a number of emotions. Here, laid out in simple language, were instructions on how to run any sort of meeting efficiently. How many years of my life have been wasted in meetings of various sorts where the chairman hadn’t even the vaguest ideas about how to conduct matters?  Simple techniques for shutting up bores, or people talking off-topic. How one draws up an agenda; how to decide whether a decision can be taken on any matter; these details were gold-dust, and I have to admit that my father was excellent at conducting meetings and ensuring that everything was done properly and efficiently. He was always home in time for his early evening glass of  wine  too.

Developers in IT now waste a colossal proportion of their time in completely footling and unnecessary meetings. The management who insist on these meetings usually have hardly the dimmest idea of how to run them.  This is not something that can be left to one’s natural group processes. The members of a committee or the participants in a business meeting are by no means predisposed to reach a sensible consensus decision. Few people who call meetings are aware of the legal requirements of  the way that a meeting must be conducted if its decision has any financial element to it.  What is worse is that so many meetings were entirely pointless. Anyone who has experienced the horror of an Agile Scrum, or the equivalent in one of the other Gung-Ho methodologies, will know that meetings are, more often than not, just ritual occasions for the aggrandizement of the person who calls them. For heaven’s sake, any experienced developer knows what to do without having to move sticky notes around a white-board. I’ve achieved far more in coordinating a group of developers in the pub on Friday afternoons than in any meeting.

Bother! I must stop. I’m on my favorite topic. I’ve been reading the little book out loud to anyone who will listen. It is like discovering a book that reveals the lost art of teleportation, or  telekenesis. Surely, the art of conducting a meeting is even more powerful magic.  No wonder my father had the little book  by his side throughout his life.

Comments

Posted by Steve Jones on 18 June 2009

Phil,

I've love to see that book. I'm not sure I know how to run a meeting, and it does seem that many of them degenerate into just social occasions.

Posted by Lynn Pettis on 18 June 2009

Sounds like a book that needs to be republished in its original form.  I'd surely pickup a few copies.

Posted by Phil Factor on 19 June 2009

The book is available from AbeBooks www.abebooks.com/.../SearchResults (no longer! -28 Jun 2009)

Neil Davidson managed to get the Ebook distribution rights to the wonderful book 'Machiavelli and Management', written in the '60s by the guy who wrote 'Yes, Minister' www.businessofsoftware.org/ebook.aspx so it might be worth trying to make 'The Conduct of Meetings' a SSC Ebook, if enough people are interested.

Posted by QuickTriggerMcGee on 19 June 2009

Great post.  Thanks for sharing it.  What a great way to differentiate yourself from the hordes of other competent techies.... master the art of running a meeting in a world that doesn't even realize that there is one!

Posted by Charleh on 26 June 2009

I remember at one point at the place I work a meeting was held every couple of weeks for an internal system which I was tasked with fixing/enhancing. The system was VB6 and pretty badly written in places - of course I still had client work on and other systems to maintain, so this stuff usually got put on the back burner.

Still, we had the meeting, and even though I'd say right at the start of the meeting "I've not done any work on it this week or last week due to other commitments" they would make me sit there and go through the same bugs/enhancements again and again! It was so utterly pointless and often wasted more than an hour of my time I could have spent fixing the thing!

Posted by Kevin Brennan on 26 June 2009

Great posting , glad to see that I am not the only one who thinks that Agile Scrum meetings are the "aggrandizement of the person who calls them" as you put it. Unfortunatly for a lot of project teams the adage when all is said and done there is more said that done! applies.

Posted by Jay Gibson on 26 June 2009

A wonderful post. While I am a firm believer in looking to the past for solutions to today’s technical issues; I hadn’t actually thought about applying it to the pain and suffering of meetings. Will definitely have to find some time to read this or a similar book.

Posted by jsanborn on 26 June 2009

I think that an eBook would be of great value.  All of us could share some meeting skills in our organization.

Posted by cvecchio2 on 26 June 2009

Great post Phil! I would love to post this book for my company and client's use. Talk about ROI.

"Meetings are where minutes are kept and time is lost."

You are always a pleasure to read!

Carm Vecchio

Posted by Robert Domitz on 26 June 2009

Thank you. I plan to get my own copy.

Posted by mark.dalley on 26 June 2009

Abebooks' copy seems to have gone already... I have just ordered my own copy from Antiqbooks and hope nobody else beat me to it as it does sound like gold dust.

I have found that even with the very best of intentions from all present, meetings can waste a huge amount of time.

MarkD

Posted by Stephanie J Brown on 26 June 2009

Sounds like a fantastic book, and one we could all profit by.  I have to disagree with Phil's comment about Agile Scrums, though - ours last anywhere from 6 to 20 minutes unless a major topic needs discussion.  We've been using them for six months and they are for dispensing information on project status, and discussing issue that arise - no agrandizement of anyone.  The team members are quick to note when we go off topic, if the ScrumMaster doesn't quash it quick!  Hm, maybe I have better meeting skill than I thought.   (Full disclosure:  ScrumMaster would be me...)

Posted by Phil Factor on 26 June 2009

Yes, I must apologize for implying that all Agile scrums are a footling waste of time. The system can be made to work well, but it can, in the wrong hands, cause endless misery. The ScrumMaster, or ScrumMistress is really a reinvention of the forgotten skill of a chairman, but it relies too much on personal skills, whereas a meeting's chairman just needs to stick doggedly to the rules and all is well.

Posted by Andy Leonard on 26 June 2009

Great post, Phil (again)!

I concur with Stephanie about Scrum and Agile - and with your response. If the meetings spin out of control they become utterly useless at best, counterproductive at worst.

:{> Andy

Posted by Nathan on 26 June 2009

Amazon in the UK has some copies available.

www.amazon.co.uk/.../ref=sr_1_olp_1

-Nate

Posted by Charles Kincaid on 26 June 2009

Bummer.  Amazon won't ship this to the US.  Well it's the third part actualy.

Phil I love reading your stuff.  I would have, I'll bet, enjoyed reading this too.

Posted by Kumar Arumugam on 26 June 2009

Hi Phil,

Thank you for the post. It's a good one. Just like one

of my friends used to say 'there should be a method even

for madness'

Posted by JJ B on 26 June 2009

I would be interested in such a book if I could get my hands on it.  I don't know what it means to "[try] to make 'The Conduct of Meetings' a SSC Ebook", but that sounds like a good idea to me.  I'm very interested.  Thanks for the fun post.  I'm sorry to hear about your father.

Posted by Phil Factor on 27 June 2009

Re: to make 'The Conduct of Meetings' a SSC Ebook

I'm having some difficulty tracking down the current owners of the copyright to the book. If I can get authorization of the current copyright holders, we can create a readable PDF file of the book, if there is any interest. As a few legal details have changed since the 1940s, (mostly laws on discrimination, i think) it might be even better to persuade Tony to commission an up-to-date take on this, completely re-written, just the bits that would be relevant for IT professionals, as part of the Red Gate book series.

Posted by Jeff Moden on 27 June 2009

Sorry, Phil... I get a...

"Search Results

We're sorry, no results were found for the search terms:"

... message when I follow your link to the book.

Posted by Phil Factor on 28 June 2009

That's because eight other people got there first! Abebooks seems to have sold out.

Posted by Ed Salva on 29 June 2009

I'm always amazed at the treasures that are found and I'm glad you found something to remember your father.  

I hope to be able to read it sometime.

While helping clean my Grandparents house I found many curious oddities. One thing that I found and kept was a payment book for a sweeper they had bought in the early 50's.  It took them 2 years to pay for it. It reminded me of the cost and value of things.  (also it was still working well, the last time I had seen it).

Best

Posted by duncan.mcnair on 20 May 2012

Don't know whether you even followed up on your idea of an ebook from The Conduct of Meetings by Cecil A Newport, (or a rewrite for IT developers). I found your blog post when I tried to check the copyright status of the book. Did you ever find anything out about that?

I have a copy of the Third Edition dated 1949 which I bought in a second hand shop in the south of England. I'm not even sure whether you will be notified of a new comment to an archived posting but here goes. If you want to email me you can get it from the webmaster who I guess will have my registration details. I'm not a techie but registered to make contact about the book.

Cheers, Duncan.

Posted by Phil Factor on 26 May 2012

Well, I had a number of inquiries at the time from people who wanted a copy, and AbeBooks did a very good trade. You've given me a bit of a nudge about an ebook on how to conduct IT meetings. I think that there is a market for it, and I'll pester everyone I know.

The original  book is still in copyright. The publishing rights are probably lapsed but the heirs to Cecil Newport would need to give their consent to assign these.

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