I saw this flip chart yesterday, left behind in a meeting room. I felt so sorry for those beleaguered slightly pathetic three words, curvy bubble and wonky line.
I thought, “they deserve more than this, let’s make them famous!”, or as famous as an appearance in Britain’s Second Funniest Systems Thinking Blog can make you.
Where I work there are lots of meeting rooms, all with flip charts set up in the corner for people to spring up and clutch a thick chubby marker pen and start drawing wiggly lines and WRITING IN CAPITAL LETTERS.
I love it, it’s roll up your sleeves, let’s grasp that issue, its Thinking Time now! With A1 size paper to boot!
These flip-charts left behind after the meeting are like fossil footprints of some long-gone dinosaur.
From fossil footprints you can work out what the creature was walked that way millions of years ago.
From these flip charts you can work out what the thinking was in the meeting that produced these flip charts. The photo above shows to me a very lacklustre meeting. Did it even make it past the first 5 minutes? Surely they couldn’t have arrived at a conclusion already? Did it go a bit like this….
CHARISMATIC PEN HOLDER: “So guys, we’ve got this issue with expectations, as we can see [points at flip chart], any one got any ideas?”
THE ROOM: [silence]
CHARISMATIC PEN HOLDER: “So…anybody?
GLEAMING EYED JOINER-IN: “erm, what about ‘understanding’?
CHARISMATIC PEN HOLDER:” Good one Chuck! What do other people think? Anyone else?”
ANOTHER GLEAMING EYED JOINER-IN: “I see that it’s more as being around [gestures a doughnut shape with her hands] the issue of better understanding, [looks round room anxiously] yes?”
CHARISMATIC PEN HOLDER:“Whoa there gang, I think we’ve got it! [steps back and examines flip chart from a metre further away to take a more holistic view of the situation] yup, that’s it nailed. Lunch?”
THE ROOM: “Yay us!”
No, it couldn’t have done, and it didn’t, I have been in many of these meetings and they are sadly never as short as that but they have been as equally pointless. As you can pick up a fossil footprint and work out what left it behind, I went round my building taking photos of the flip charts that were left behind, to judge the thinking that created them, here they are in all their vacuous glory.
There is no mention of data.
But oh, those neat headings, laid out as neat and plausible as the contents of a plan.
No reference to reality, or finding out about it. Sealed, secure, final.
Stated headlines, no questions.
There is no mention of data.
This one at least has a question mark which implies a question, which implies curiosity.
But about what? Is there a any sign of a plan for getting knowledge to satisfy that curiosity?
No, there are neat headlines begging to be filled in. Already the answer is there. It’s about people and documents!
There is no mention of data.
No need! This is all about target specifications. Making sure targets are neat as piss.
What’s going to happen next?
Nothing. No need!
Zen like in its simplicity. A haiku about nothingness.
I did this. I wrote those words months ago, they hung around in that room like a bad stink. I know exactly what the thinking was in that room. It was:
- don’t rock the boat
- say what matters to the manager
- look positive, act engaged
- firm solutions stated briefly
- never say or show “I don’t know”, I know this as I was told off for doing this by the manager. After that I learned to pretend I knew everything.
- no wonder the sheet was left blank.
- thank God it was.
I was feeling a bit deflated after crawling around the building collecting photos of this inane bull. None of it was surprising, I have been the person holding the chunky pen in so many of these meetings, I know the score.
There IS an art to facilitation in a command and control organisation, being in charge of organising a room of other human beings is a responsibility I take seriously, the gold standard I aim for is finishing on time. Then at least people know they can leave the room when they expect to.
As a substitute for going out and getting knowledge of the real world, we use tricks and tools. Something that provides structure to the event, holds the attention, distracts and amuses. I have amused children on long car journeys, the challenge and method is very similar.
I am complicit in every aspect of the above. I don’t accuse any of the authors of anything I have not done myself. This isn’t personal, it’s the system stupid.
Here’s the pay-off.
Honestly, truthfully, the last room I walked into didn’t have a flip chart in it, but there was a whiteboard on the far wall, riddled with words. I was pulled in, and what I saw knocked my socks off.
I recognise this. Purpose. Demand. I know that “V/F” means! They are talking about collecting value demand and failure demand data! Look at that! Questions that provoke finding the answer, not just providing any answer. They want to know!
Then the second wave of shocking realisation hit me. I work in a Local Authority, and like a lot of others, we have out-sourced services to the private sector to make savings and preserve jobs. The building I was walking around and taking photos of silly futile meetings where people talk at each other, was shared by another organisation The particular lot that took over some of our services think like this. That whiteboard shows focus on purpose, a need to know about demand in order to design against it. The plans are plans to get knowledge and move forward, not planning for a solution. A neat sealed documented solution. Blown way I was at the difference between the two organisations sharing the same building. Where do I want to work, to expend my energies?