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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Monday, June 04, 2007
    Recognise the ritual
     
    The modern meeting [is] a fertile ground for bullshit. For the philosopher Harry Frankfurt, 'bullshit' is language that simply evades conventional categories of truth and falsehood, and is thus much harder to pin down than lying. Bullshit is likely to occur 'whenever a person's obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more extensive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic' Modern meetings are precisely these sorts of occasions, requiring you to give a smooth impersonation of someone who knows what they are talking about. They often value unanchored thought, sometimes called 'blue-sky', 'outside-the-box' or 'upside-down' thinking to suggest its lack of boundaries and constraints. During a brainstorm or 'thought shower', the facilitator may remind the group that 'all ideas are good ideas' or invite them to 'run a few ideas up the flagpole and see if they get a salute'. People are actively encouraged to play roles and change their views according to their different areas of responsibility ('with my resources hat on ... '). Fluency, even if it is made up of bullshit, is more valued than awkward silence, even if it inspires thoughtfulness. Bullshit is always more likely to occur when business culture stresses the importance of enthusiasm, passion, creativity, energy, buzz rather than, say, the ability to ground ideas in knowledge or logical thinking.
    Joe Moran's chapter on meetings is gleeful in its exposure of the banalities of corporate-speak, the dispiriting dullness of PowerPoint presentations and the hopelessly self-perpetuating nature of all such activities. I laughed out loud at many points he makes, most of which have been covered in a different, equally incisive way by Dilbert. But towards the end of the chapter there's a hint of something else. Meetings are a ritual...
    The modern meeting remains the most formal occasion in our daily lives. It has introductory rites (apologies for absence, matters arising), a liturgy (agenda items for discussion) and concluding rites (any other business, date of next meeting). Everything is recorded for posterity in the holy book known as 'the minutes', which are typed up, circulated and agreed at the next meeting. The meeting takes place in a designated space (the meeting room), and is presided over by a kind of priest or elder (the chair) who may begin with a recitation (on PowerPoint). The participants break bread together (triangular sandwiches or shortbread biscuits) and dress in ceremonial garb (business suits and ties). Like many rituals, the meeting is rooted in the politics of daily life but aims to transcend the difficult issues of power and status through the use of formality and ceremony.
    Joe says that we're not usually aware of the ritual status of meetings because we're so bored and disenchanted by them. So we find our little ways of subverting them but we never challenge their underlying nature. Recognise the ritual and ... anything could happen?