The danger of misunderstanding the workings of meetings is highlighted Anthro Vision by the FT journalist Gillian Tett. She demonstrates how anthropological approaches should be a routine element in understanding business, finance and consumers. Those involved in marketing will know about how the “have a break, have a Kit-Kat” became such a success in Japan by linking it to exam success and “wishes come true” instead. Marketers have other examples where cultural understanding has shown that global branding fails. But in her discussion about culture, tribes, and webs of meaning the implications for management are taken to new areas where an anthropology could transform our comprehension of events.

In particular she explains a moment when General Motors was trying to jointly develop small vehicles with teams in Europe and the USA. Problems arose and it was clear that this was a cultural divide between Germans and Americans; except that it was not nothing of the sort. There were in fact divides all over the place but ethnicity in this instance was not one.

Meeting agenda
A key point is whether going into a meeting is seen as “doing work” or not. For most of the GM groups day-to-day work was seen as something done outside of meetings so they wanted a clear agenda and a brief meeting. Yet the team in Detroit viewed meetings in an opposite light, where a loose agenda was required for ideas to be raised and the list of what needed to be agreed developed as they went along.

Alongside those assumptions came other local procedures with Detroit seeking outcomes via majority and the others in the U.S. and Europe being more hierarchical.

In recent years in the leather industry all approaches have existed, sometimes within one company. Organisations like Lifesize try to make sense of all this by categorising what the purpose of meetings might be. These include:

– Status update
– Decision making
– Problem solving
– Team building
– Idea sharing
– Innovation

My starting experience in leather was that we had two types of meetings: monthly Board Meetings and lunches. We joke now about lengthy alcoholic lunches but I can say in the 1970s I lunched in the UK, Italy, Costa Rica, El Salvador while living locally and running tanneries and in their different ways the transfer and development of knowledge and ideas was amazing.

Almost everything else was dealt with on the tannery floor. Of course, some meetings, usually very brief, did occur to handle personal and Union matters, but tannery work continued to be something carried on essentially looking at, inspecting and discussing leather in the hide house, the limeyard, the tanyard or elsewhere in the plant.

“Meetings” as a thing coincided with the arrival of new management theories – management by objectives, quality circles, just-in-time, twenty keys, total quality management (TQM) and of course, the Lean Six Sigma.
Suddenly at some stage in the late 20th century, “in a meeting” became the excuse for almost everything. But often meetings were elevated to “required attendance” events of little value other than for a senior staff person or CEO to collect information and show rather meaningless domination.

In one group I worked for with multiple divisions a week each month was set up for a caravan of directors to tour around causing havoc and distress, an exercise called Board Meetings that unquestionably decimated overall business efficiency without any benefit.

If you’re not adding value to a meeting, leave.
It would have been useful if Elon Musk had been around at the time with his three rules for better meetings:

1. No large meetings.
2. If you’re not adding value to a meeting, leave.
3. No frequent meetings.

It is hard to imagine the fuel, the tyres, the sleep, the peace of mind and the efficiency that would have been gained without our monthly cabaret, but it does go to show that the culture of meetings will need a post pandemic rethink, and that anthropological thinking should be involved.

Zoom has given us full diaries and helped those working from home be far more effective than expected. It has taken out travel cost and time, and improved attendance while allowing participation from around the world. There is no doubt they will continue, and probably be adapted to be hybrid as more staff return to the tannery.
Coincidentally the rise of Zoom through the pandemic, has also seem some moves for further consolidation in the industry. Many of our autoleather companies have a variety of locations around the world, as do more and our of our major footwear plants. This means some clear understanding and sensitivity in handling the cultures involved. Terms like “individual empowerment”, “collaboration” or on some instances the meaning of “yes’ and “no” need to be thought through before sitting multiple cultures in front of the video lens.

And if you are a CEO intending to “collect information and show rather meaningless domination” do it over a good lunch.

Mike Redwood

July 13, 2021

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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