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An end to endless meetings

Basecamp screenshotI was at the Royal Statistical Society’s Annual Awards last night, and found myself talking with a colleague – a client’s supplier – perhaps ‘work cousin’ would be a good description. I was managing a project that her business partner was actively involved with. As usual at meaning, we had been using 37signal’s Basecamp, a project collaboration tool, to manage the project, and she had some interesting observations to make.

A strong feature of Basecamp is the threaded discussions it allows you to set up, in which you can explore a topic or a question and invite comments. She had been watching the stream of emails coming out of the project, and had noticed that the discussions tended to range far and wide around the subject, and often everyone seemed to have something to say. She had also noticed that, it often required no more than a gentle nudge from me to get the topic back into focus, which might be to ask another question, or to sum up and provide a consensus. We realised that what was actually going on with each of these  was a meeting, but a meeting that unfolded over a day or several days.

In fact, the dicussions often bear a lot of resemblance to meeting conversations and meeting behaviour. But we agreed that there were several significant advantages over using meeting time to cover the same ground. First, she had noticed that it was a method which really did allow everyone to have their say, and within reason, no limits. It is also extremely time efficient. While someone may attack a particular subject with relish and in exhaustive detail, others who don’t share the interest or for whom it is irrelevant can scan the message in seconds and pass on to what does matter to them. And as moderator, I have the advantage, when trying to reach a consenusal position, of being able to go back to precisely what was said, hours or days later, with perfect recall.

Basecamp works because it does not try to do too much. It’s simple to use and provides a space for collaboration to take place. Anyone on the project can raise a topic, and anyone can add their comment. It is not prescriptive, and if you follow the same approach – as I hope I do – then it is amazing to see the extent to which people will engage with subjects and contribute to the discussion in ways that transcend what is possible in round-the-table meetings. Not that I am an advocate of going virtual all the time. Real meetings have a place, and are important for other reasons – especially in the early stages of a project, while people establish their roles, and at other key stages. But using a project discussion thread as an alternative to taking some items to meetings often seems to get the item worked through and resolved quickly, openly and inclusively with very little impact on people’s time.

The real test is, are the real meetings shorter as a result? From my experience, I’d be inclined to say “yes”.