Learning patterns/A concise compendium to catastrophic conference calls
What problem does this solve?
This learning pattern is the third in a series of patterns helping you to screw things up. Badly running events and projects is important, but there is no reason you should not mess up the more mundane activities of your chapter. Today, we will be looking at making your regular conference calls − especially board calls − as inefficient and unnerving as possible − because it’s not because you need to have them that they can’t be fun!
What is the solution?
- Don’t have calls
- Simple solutions are the most elegant. Why the need to touch base regularly with your team, fellow board members and/or executive director? You most certainly already have a mailing-list for such things. Whether threads go on and on, people misunderstand each other and where everyone is happily sinking their times ; or it’s an echo chamber where discussions die before starting and important questions go unanswered − either way, adding voice conversations sounds hardly necessary
- Besides, we all know it’s best if each person focuses on their particular area of expertise. A call aiming to regularly share information would risk people being distracted learning about the work of others, and thus work less efficiently themselves. Avoid oversharing!
However, if you must, let’s try to hit a couple of key objectives here: minimise participation, minimise signal/noise ratio, minimise usefulness.
We have all experienced it − the more the people, the harder it is to discuss things. As such, your best strategy to have better calls is obviously to discourage people from participating as much as possible.
- Don’t plan the date ahead…
- Agreeing on a date with a fair bit of notice, or even agreeing on − gasp! − regular meetings − what a lack of spontaneity. The modern world gave us wonderful tools like doodles − that half of the people can fill it right away and the other half at the last minute − so that we can decide on a date a mere 24h before the meeting, ensuring fun and confusion for as long as possible. Added bonus, you can test the commitment of everyone by forcing them to keep three evenings open until the last moment.
- …or never be flexible
- Someone insisted to plan out the meetings ahead and you can’t avoid it? Then never allow any flexibility about it. After all, we all agreed it would be that day at that time. Just because key people have impediments does not mean the rest cannot hold the meeting without them!
- Don’t account for different time-zones
- Don’t feel pressured to cater to everyone in a group distributed over time-zones − even if that means a call is scheduled in the middle of the night for some people. After all, it’s essentially people’s choice to be where they are.
- Change methods on a regular fashion
- Skype? Hangouts? Mumble? There are so many tools available these days − you really ought to test all of them to see which one yields the worst results. As a rule of thumb, only use software available on one platform, to alienate Linux, Apple and Windows users in turn. Added bonus if 1/ you notify people of the new tool a mere 10 minutes before the meeting ; 2/ provide esoteric, incomplete or inexistant documentation on how to use them.
Minimise signal/noise ratio
It’s not really a conversation if everyone can hear each other. Here are a few tips to minimise clarity and understanding with the good old method: noise
- Use crappy hardware (or not at all)
- If laptops come with speakers and built-in microphone, that must be for a reason. Why wasting money on proper speakerphones or half-decent headsets, or even bothering to plug your old earbuds? Reverb, echo and larsens are the best punctuation to get your point across.
- Don’t use your software
- Push-to-talk, threshold detection, muting oneself… Software are so bloated these days! Besides, hearing the surroundings of your fellow speakers really helps connecting and relating. Barking dog, unrelated chatting around… Let it all ride the radio waves! After all, sharing is caring!
- There’s no place like random place
- It’s 2019 − we should be able to call from anywhere, right? Installed in a busy coffee-shop, riding on an old-fashioned train, walking in a windy street… All good options for ambient noise. Alternatively, join the call from a remote countryside on a flaky phone connection − after all no signal is no noise!
- Don’t make an agenda…
- The whole point of these calls is to discuss things, right? Do you make agendas when meeting friends at dinner parties, or when chatting with colleagues at the water cooler? No? So why bother? Just like in a good tabloid, the trivial but gripping will naturally come to prominence, while the so-called « strategic » (and, frankly, boring as hell) topics can safely be ignored until the last moments.
- … or if you must, randomise it…
- Some want to get the easy stuff out of the way first to focus on the hard stuff ; others to take on the the most crucial points first while everyone is fresh, and keep the minor points at the end. That such opposite school of thoughts both have valid reasoning just proves how utter bullshit that is. Just put your items in random order − that will increase the fun and save preparation time.
- …if all else fails, mess it up…
- Because of forces beyond your control, you ended up before the call with a properly ordered agenda? Add items at the last minute or even during the call − bonus points if no one notices.
- …and of course, don’t follow it.
- As always, don’t feel pressured to follow the items of the agenda. The best part is, you probably don’t have anything particular to do for that to happen − people will naturally digress into side-conversations, just let it happen. If needed, toss in a random subject at any time − trolls and gossip are particularly well-suited.
- Don’t prepare for your interventions
- You are supposed to update the rest of the team/board on a topic? Why wasting time looking up relevant information that you know will naturally come to you − obviously you know your subject in and out!
- Don’t read shared documents
- Someone sent in advance documents to be reviewed − wow, what a strange fellow. Anyhow, don’t feel pressured in reading them beforehand − no one wants to be the suck-up. Besides, read too early and you may miss some last-minute modifications. In any case, they will probably go through the material anyway, and we sure do not want any spoilers!
- Don’t timebox
- Look, if people want to discuss something to death, who are you to stop them? It’s obviously important to them! The fact that you are two hours in a meeting scheduled for 90 minutes, and only 1 item covered does not mean the topic at hand should not deserve the attention it gets.
- Don’t do any note taking, or ensure this is always the same person
- So apparently there has to be some kind of note taking happening. Not sure why, but whatever. Just tell the person who did it last time to do it again − they’re obviously experienced in the exercise, duh. Also, it’s not because we write collaboratively on projects that you should feel compelled to use Etherpads to distribute the load − sounds like the recipe for no one to be in charge. Obviously, make it clear that the note-taker cannot participate in discussions as they have to focus on their tasks (we have to keep up the appearances of high-quality note-taking).
- Don’t assign action items
- Hey, the point was to discuss stuff, not to bring back homework.
- Don’t write summaries − or if you must, postpone for as much as you can
- What is the point of « replaying the game » and write minutes of the meeting? We all know what happened don’t we? If that happens to be some legal obligation (tssss), don’t fret − there is plenty of time until the next AGM or audit to catch back. As for the poor souls who could not make it, well, too bad for them − next time they will set their priorities straight if they want to know what was discussed.
When to use
All this advice is particularly well-suited to regular board calls, but can be effectively applied to any kind of conference calls.
- A short guide to bad projects
- A fine selection of mistakes for organizing an international conference (and how to make sure you commit them)
- Use telephone calls or Skype to clarify questions early