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Bloody Meetings!

by Martin Easterbrook

In issue 16 of CONRUNNER Chuck Connor has some very pertinent remarks on one of the major problem areas in running a convention - MEETINGS. He writes "As any teacher of business management will tell you, the biggest time destroyer is meetings, and with sub-committees you are doubling your oxygen consumption for half the final product value".

Unfortunately for most conventions except some 'small' ones, meetings are your major tool as well as possibly your greatest danger. Therefore they should be treated with the same kind of suspicion and care which Armageddon engineering uses on its pyrotechnics.

One of the first requirements is to be clear about the purpose of a particular meeting. As amateur and 'social' organisations Con committees use meetings for a far wider range of purposes than a business organisation. The style appropriate for one purpose is rarely suitable for another. The most familiar type of meeting is of the 'company boardroom' format where the committee make rather formal and specific decisions about the running of the convention and review the work that has gone on to date. However there are other purposes for getting together; long term strategy discussions (what sort of con do we want?) and brainstorming (quick think of 20 new and original program items!), communication (perhaps tech ops and the dealers room should discuss their sharing of the single equipment trolley during the one hour they've beeen given for set up), 'team building' and fun (perhaps tech ops will be happier having D West as their new boss after they've had a nice friendly game of poker together?), and finally simply getting together to actually do some work (honest it'll only take a couple of hours to build the full size King Kong for the opening ceremony!).

Of course what is in fact achieved by such meetings is frequently quite different; time wasting (the progress report is delayed because of the meeting to decide what colour it should be), indecision and personality clashes ("if the rest of you want to do it that way I'll thceam and thceam until I'm thick"), illusions of progress (we've got 10 pages of minutes dealing with the colours of the biros for registration'), and expense (getting 10 people travelling an average of 30 miles each to discuss saving 50 on the con budget).

Again avoiding such problems begins with having a clear idea in your own mind what you are trying to do and concentrating on that. The job of the secretary is to make sure that everyone coming to the meeting knows what that purpose is by circulating a clear agenda in advance of the meeting. If the meeting isn't going to be a formal one this might simply say "turn up at 3pm. Brlng a bottle and ideas for 5 program items" but if that's what you've advertised don't be tempted to change its purpose unless there is a crisis.

It is also up to everyone else to help the secretary as much as possible. A meeting will be far more productive if any written reports are distributed with the agenda before the meeting. Often a lot of meeting time can be wasted sitting around reading reams of word processor output which is handed out at the start of the meeting (the guilty parties out there know who they are!). Even if you have posted this stuff out in advance it is still of enormous benefit to keep it as short and well focused as possible. Make sure that you highlight decisions and actions that you need from others on the committee.

During the meeting make sure that someone keeps accurate and concise minutes. Sometimes it is an advantage if the minute taker is not someone who wants to speak a great deal at the meeting as this allows them to concentrate on recording what other people are saying. Writing a good set of minutes is a skillful editing task. A verbose listing of everything that happened simply obscures the important points and is more likely to get tossed aside unread. Also a religious listing of all the arguments that happen at a meeting just perpetuates them. Record the decisions but not who said what about whose mother/favourite author/soft toy. (If these remarks were genuinely witty or sufficiently scandalous you might consider leaking them to Small Mammal or Ansible instead.)

The minutes are intended to help the committee remember their decisions and to pass them on to those who were absent. The most important things are the action items and some secretaries make sure these are distributed as soon after the meeting as possible, with the full minutes following later. As well as the committee there will usually be other people who need to know particular decisions from the meeting. Again the secretary will need to prepare an edited meeting report for them.

This raises the thorny question of secrets and who they are going to be kept from. Generally these come in two categories. Firstly plans for the running of the convention that you want to surprise people with or are unable to disclose at the moment. Secondly there will often be 'personal' information about your guests or helpers which affects the running of the convention. The first type of information can be recorded in documents with restricted circulation as even if a 'security leak' occurs it is unfortunate rather than serious and can usually be 'controlled' with threats of sufficient violence.

The second category represents more kinds of potential trouble than you want to think about. Part of my induction onto the Eastcon committee was the "who is/was/isn't sleeping with who" briefing. To this day I remain amazed at the ability of fans from such widely different and mutually hostile sub fandoms to have had secret mad passionate affairs with each other. This is the sort of thing that you don't want to write down anywhere. If this gets out you are going to be the one who will be on the receiving end of the violence. If an author (or agent, or editor) is involved the result may be an even less pleasant law suite since most of their secret scandals involve money and are therefore far more serious than sex.

Since this information is now contained in a great secret oral tradition of fandom most of it is of course wrong, which makes you even more vulnerable to bloody or financial revenge.

However once the two types of confidential information have been eliminated from your documents they can be safely distributed to a much wider set of people. Most fans are intelligent and eager to help (if you disagree why do you want to run a convention for them?), the more information they have the more they can help. It also helps to reduce confusion. One of our Eastcon problems occurred when we discovered that the projection team was expecting to use some of the same hotel equipment that we had allocated to masquerade lighting because they always used that equipment at the Adelphi and hadn't seen any information to suggest that this time things would be different. If you keep your decisions secret the odds are you won't think them through as well as if you are going to publicise them. You'll only find out where you've gone wrong in the midst of running your convention.

However, like many meetings, we have digressed from the main topic, the running of meetings themselves. It is the task of the chairperson of the meeting to prevent this. Chairing a meeting is a very difficult task and few people can do it well. You must keep the meeting moving without forcing your opinions on it. In particular don't let a topic drag on to the point where people's concentration lapses. The chairperson is there to act as a team coach to the committee not to act as a Stalinesque Dictator (this is the secretary's job, see above). If the chairperson is working properly she/he will often not have time to put forward their own opinions.

For some (many?) meetings there are alternatives to a traditional chairperson. A whiteboard can be an excellent 'chairperson' for brainstorming sessions where people throw out ideas rapidly. Frequently it is possible to have an independent chairman (or secretary) who has little interest in the outcome of the debate, just in how well it is conducted. Sub areas can use people from other committees in this role which, as a side effect, improves communication throughout the organisation.

The chairperson should also ensure that the meeting respects the areas that have been delegated to sub committees. If you have asked someone to do something for you then trust them to do it. Rehashing their decisions just annoys them and wastes your time. If what they want to do conflicts with some of your decisions let them know why and ask them to rework their ideas rather than simply overruling them. You ought to spend at least one main committee meeting going through each sub area with its committee so that they are aware how they fit in with the rest of the convention. Also you can use sub committee members in the chairperson and secretary roles of some of your meetings. In any case each sub committee should share one member with the main committee to ensure good communication. Of course once you've got to the size of conventions this multi layer organisation implies then, as Chuck points out, the main committee members should forget about much time to do work themselves. Their job is going to be coordination and they should concentrate on doing that well (unfortunately in the boring old real world they probably will still have work to do that they haven't been able to unload on anyone else).

It is generally a good idea to open up your meetings as much as possible. Doing this allows you to bring in people to help you who may not have the time to become permanent committee members. Don't be afraid to ask other experienced people to come in to a meeting to advise you on a particular topic. If they do come to help you respect their opinions, if they were just going to say the same things you would then there'd be no point in inviting them.

In conclusion I'd like to see fandom apply its great talent of 'constructive disrespect' to meetings. Let's keep asking ourselves if they are doing any good and if they aren't let's change them until they do.


This page updated on 09 July 1999