Printed 2017/08/21 04:06PM

The secret skill revealed in the dusty booklet

By Phil Factor, 2009/06/18

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.

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