Re: Efficient board meetings, revised

From: David Graham - SPI Secretary <cdlu(at)spi-inc(dot)org>
To: spi-general(at)lists(dot)spi-inc(dot)org
Cc: board(at)spi-inc(dot)org
Subject: Re: Efficient board meetings, revised
Date: 2004-10-17 17:31:02
Message-ID: Pine.LNX.4.55.0410171106260.17549@baffin
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On Sat, 16 Oct 2004, Ian Jackson wrote:
> This is my problem with IRC board meetings for anything but the formal
> confirmation of decisions etc. For serious discussion, where it
> actually matters, I think IRC is very poor. The problems stem from
> the real-time, text-mediated nature of the medium.

At meetings where discussion has not been trampled by people who would
rather be doing something else, the discussions have proven productive.
A lot of work has come out of SPI board meeting-time discussions, and it's
disingenuous to suggest otherwise.

> I'd guess that most of us can read (with an ordinary level of
> attention to detail) at perhaps 500 WPM and type at maybe 50 WPM, very
> roughly. That means that we can read perhaps somewhere around 5..20
> times faster than we can type, even if we don't have to think about
> what we're saying or do any research.

I'm fairly confident that I can neither read at 500 wpm nor be limited to
writing at 50. There's also a problem in this formula that it assumes that
you are only reading what you yourself type and noone else is there. 9
people typing at 50 words per minute is 450 words per minute which is
close to your 500 word per minute reading estimate.

> This means that if we're having a conversation in an IRC meeting, and
> we're mainly waiting for one person to speak, all of us are reading
> about 10% of the time; 90% of the time is spent just waiting.

I also disagree with the assertion that 90% of the time is spent waiting,
as whatever time *is* remaining where you're neither reading nor writing
should be spent thinking about the issues being discussed. I don't believe
it's beneficial for anyone to be twiddling their thumbs.

> This leads to a number of `workarounds':
> Sometimes people try to do something else in the resulting small gaps.
> This makes the problem better for them, but of course worse for
> everyone else as their small lapses of attention can be noticed and
> cause delays etc.

It's a self-perpetuating problem. If one person turns away for a moment
and the others wait for them, the first comes back and finds everyone
waiting and leaves again, others leave because they're waiting... If noone
stopped paying attention, noone would stop paying attention. It's one of
those amazing twists of logic.

> Often, people abbreviate what they say, or hurry to try to get it out
> faster. This makes their utterances harder to follow, sometimes
> ambiguous, and less well thought out.

E-mail is just the opposite, mind you, where everyone takes hours or days
to reply in often verbose lengthly emails that certainly not everyone

> Sometimes we have several conversations at once, on different topics.
> This makes the discussion confusing; it also means that people who are
> reading more closely, following references, and/or perhaps having
> difficulty with the somewhat clipped English (see above) will lag
> behind and either lose track of the conversation or have to explicitly
> call for a pause (which is socially awkward).

This is contradictory again. You state both that the meetings are too slow
and you lose people and too fast.. and you lose people. In short, we just
lose people a lot, which flies in the face of the full-attendance
productive meetings we've had lately.

> A problem related to those is that, in an IRC conversation, everyone
> has to be participating at the same rate because it's fully
> synchronous. There is no easy facility for someone who wants to think
> about a question more deeply, or do some background reading, to do
> so.

Except to, as is often done, request deferral.

> To illustrate the difference, imagine if we were trying to resolve
> this very disagreement in an IRC meeting. How could we find the time
> to type out long, thought-out arguments such as those we're seeing in
> this thread, let alone find the time to sleep on them, consider the
> best way to put them and all the relevant facts, etc. ?

If this discussion were taking place during a meeting it would prove that
the resolution was counter-productive. If it wasn't, it would prove that
it isn't necessary.

> Some of these problems exist in in-person meetings too, but they are
> less severe. Most serious in-person meetings of organisation boards
> /are/ backed up by comprehensive documentation and writing up of
> proposals in advance - including explicit rules about how much time
> committee members are expected to have to consider the issues. And,
> when the meeting is actually taking place, the full range of in-person
> cues (body language, mid-sentence pauses, ums, interruptions, catching
> of eyes, etc.) is available to provide much higher-bandwidth output
> from each individual than most of us can achieve via a keyboard.

I, for one, am far more eloquent and succinct through my fingers than I
ever have been or will be in person, as anyone who has met me can attest.

In-person meetings *are* backed up as you say, yes. As are ours.

And they both have something else in common:

They discuss the issues before them.

That's right, even at in-person meetings issues are discussed, not just
voted on. It's an integral part of a meeting. Without discussions,
meetings would be utterly and completely pointless. We could just open the
channel with a votebot and people could come by and !vote yes or !vote no
over the course of the day and we could call that our meeting.

I've hardly ever been to an in-person meeting of anything that's taken
less than 2 or 3 hours precisely *because* they are willing to sit down
and discuss what's in front of them.

SPI board members have an irrational urge to be finished whatever meeting
we have in under an hour, whether or not we're done. If we can finish our
meetings in 30 minutes, great! If it takes us 2 hours, so be it! That's
what being a board is all about.

> I would like to see SPI's meetings operate more like the meat-life
> meetings of serious organisations: we should do our preparing of
> position papers, discussings of our arguments, and attempts to
> persuade, drafting of resolutions, etc., offline. Only the most
> urgent or contentious issues should remain for undigested discussion
> during the meeting - and even for contentious issues, ideally, the
> meeting provides the venue for the formal settlement of the dispute
> one way or the other, via a vote.

A vote following a discussion. The discussion is important.

> I also find IRC is fine for more informal settings. If what you
> want is to quickly get a high-interaction-rate discussion amongst a
> few people, and exact questions of what was agreed and making sure
> everyone is carried along by the discussion are less important, then
> IRC can be a very good alternative to phone calls.

IRC is also good for this, yes.

> So I would be very happy (for example) to schedule a more interactive
> flame-fest^W discussion with David Graham and others, so that we can try
> to understand each other better and maybe shortcut some of these
> arguments. But, I think that for formal decisionmaking IRC should be
> used not because it is a good medium for discussion, but because it (a)
> meets the requirements that we have a _meeting_ as opposed to an
> exchange of memos and (b) has some value in being able to chivvy people
> to turn up and/or chastise them if they come unprepared or without
> sufficient participation in advance.

The requirement for a meeting is not some abstract concept cast upon us by
an uncaring government, but given to us because it is an important
mechanism in the process of making decisions.

I'm in no way advocating only using IRC meetings, but I disagree
wholeheartedly and completely with the assertion that IRC meetings are not
a place for discussion.

David Graham, SPI Secretary
cdlu(at)spi-inc(dot)org D5F45889

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