Re: Efficient board meetings, revised

From: David Graham - SPI Secretary <cdlu(at)spi-inc(dot)org>
To: board(at)spi-inc(dot)org
Cc: spi-general(at)lists(dot)spi-inc(dot)org
Subject: Re: Efficient board meetings, revised
Date: 2004-10-17 18:07:16
Message-ID: Pine.LNX.4.55.0410171123420.17549@baffin
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On Sun, 17 Oct 2004, Ian Jackson wrote:
> David Graham - SPI Secretary writes ("Re: Efficient board meetings, revised"):
> > I do not [like] the rules from 2004-10-15.iwj.1
> ...
> > IRC discussions are an effective, efficient way to conduct meetings
> This is, I think, the key point of disagreement between us. I've
> described my problems with IRC more fully in another message, so I
> shan't repeat myself here.

This may well be the key to our disagreement, but I stand by the
effectiveness and efficiency of IRC meetings, as discussed later in this

> > IRC logs, especially when read against a meeting's agenda are easy to
> > parse into the discussions that took place, and provide an accurate and
> > candidate representation of the views of those present.
> I disagree with this. Indeed, we've had discussions even during the
> meeting about what people were referring to when they said something
> and even in some cases about how they voted.

Disagreements happen in all situations. If we were meeting in person we
would have the added problem of not having a definite record of who voted
how that can be looked at later without a stenographer or secretary
writing everything down during the meeting (unable to really participate
at the same time, no less).

> > Asking a question for clarification in a report is no reason to defer it
> > for a month, nor is it reason to force closure and vote immediately.
> Let me present a scenario, which is quite conservative in counting the
> cost of IRC discssion. Firstly, supposing the person with the
> question asks the report author by email in advance:
> Let us say that enquirer spends perhaps 1 minute writing that email,
> and the report author (let us say) 3 minutes at their convenience to
> read it and write a response (we'll assume that the question is
> simple, the answer is known, and a 200-odd-word answer will do). This
> pair of mails will take the other interested parties perhaps a total
> of 20 seconds each to read; let's say the response might take the
> enquirer a full minute to read. If we have 30 interested parties,
> that works out as follows:
> 1 minute of the enquirer's time to write the question
> 3 minutes of the report author's time to write the answer
> 1 minute of the enquirer's time to read the answer
> 10 minutes (20s x 30 interested parties) others' reading time
> ---
> 15 minutes total

I would call this 'spin'. The reality is this, in a mailing list
discussion, as this very one demonstrates:

Scnario: A committee sends in their report on the Monday following a board
meeting. This month, that would (have been) October 11th.

People have a chance to read it, and someone sends in a question on
October 12th. The presenter of the committee has already checked his mail
for the last time that day as he's in a different timezone and does not
read it until the 13th. He replies that afternoon and sends his reply to
the list and the person asking the question.

Total time elapsed: 2-3 days.

And that's assuming everything goes perfectly.

Measuring in man-hours is silly. This discussion about 'efficient board
meetings' has already eaten up several board meetings worth of man-hours
of time among those of us discussing it largely to rehash the same
arguments, when it's unlikely that either of us, at least, will change our

I believe some things are better served by e-mail discussions, but I also
believe some things are better served by IRC discussions. Simple matters
can be done effectively on IRC.

> If we do the same thing by IRC, then if we conduct the meeting in
> full lockstep with everyone taking turns to speak and waiting for the
> enquirer to read and ack the answer, it'll take 5 minutes of elapsed
> time. If the number of interested parties is the same, that's:
> 5 minutes elapsed time
> * 30 interested parties
> ---
> 150 minutes total

I don't know where you get 5 minutes of elapsed time, nor 30 interested
parties each wasting those 5 minutes.

Even at 50 words a minute, a 200 word answer takes 4 minutes. I don't know
about the rest of the board, but I type between 100 and 150 words per
minute and tend not to give 200-word answers on IRC.

If the question is indeed short and the answer is indeed already known
then a simple answer will suffice, taking as little as a single minute.

If the question is a more complex answer than your whole example is moot
anyway as it is a different kettle of fish. A complicated question/answer,
if asked during the meeting, can be deferred back to discussion or
originate there and be resolved by meeting time.

My point is that the simple questions *are* appropriate to IRC.

> If the question or response are more complicated, or more discussion
> is needed, or the report author needs to look up the answer, the
> figures can easily get much, much worse.
> Now, you may protest that the number of people on the mailing list is
> much larger than the number of people who attend IRC meetings. BUT
> this is just a reflection of the comparitive inaccessibility of IRC
> meetings ! People react to the waste of time by failing to
> participate.

People disappearing is, I believe, a cause rather than an effect of
further people disappearing. We have some board members who don't even
respond to calls for votes for several minutes. That's the biggest waste
of time I've seen during the meetings since I became secretary. If people
make an effort to pay attention, we will get a lot done, and quickly.

> You may also say that we don't do things in lockstep like that.
> Indeed, we don't. We try to overlap the various activities somewhat.
> This means that the enquirer may well be too busy reading and
> considering the answer to pay proper attention to the next item, or
> that the report's author may be too busy preparing their answer to
> read the minor exchange that happens in the middle (which they maybe
> had a comment on), etc. With a synchronous low-bandwidth medium like
> IRC, the only way to make sure people have enough time is to do it in
> lockstep.
> So, this is just a collosal waste of everybody's time, and totally
> unnecessary. After all, if someone wants to tell the board something
> they can just email it to us and we don't need to formally accept it
> or anything at all. If they want to know that we've read it and are
> happy for whatever it is to exist / carry on / be true / whatever,
> then having the board members formally indicate their acceptance is
> fine but there is _no_ reason to have everyone waiting around for it.

On the contrary, I would support a brief allocation of time at the start
or end of meetings for prepared announcements to be made. Paste, done! Ok,
everyone knows, it's on the record.

E-mail discussions, for all the archiving, are not on the official
records, which only exist in the form of minutes and resolutions.

> > > 3. IRC discussions are less accessible to people who are not available
> > > at the time of the meeting than email.
> >
> > Logs are distributed. Meetings are scheduled around when board members can
> > attend. Some resolution discussion takes place privately on the board
> > mailing list and is not even as open a process as the IRC meetings.
> I think that we should usually discuss our board resolutions on
> spi-general, or if applicable spi-private. (I admit that I haven't
> always been as careful about the To: headers of my messages as I
> should.)

We should, perhaps, define when things belong in spi-private. I don't
think we have any clear guidelines as to what belongs in the public domain
and what doesn't. My understanding is that a 501c3 that doesn't keep its
business public can lose its 501c3 status.

> > provided the chairman of the meeting enforces procedural rules, such as
> > not allowing digression, a far bigger enemy than topical discussion.
> Have you asked the meeting chair by /msg to ask people to say on
> topic ? I agree that the digression is harmful.


> > Resolutions are often posted days or weeks in advance and no replies are
> > received until 3 hours before the meeting.
> I agree that this is a problem.
> > If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.
> I'd appreciate it if you'd respond to what I'm saying in good faith.
> I agree that one of the problems has been the lack of timely
> between-meeting participation and that I've been one of the culprits.
> I'm trying to help fix that, by setting an explicit expectation for me
> and other board members to meet. I think that's more constructive
> than finger-pointing or shouting at people on IRC.

This is completely in good faith. After months or years of inaction and
non-participation you expect me to believe you out-of-hand that you will
participate completely. While you're doing so now, the real question is
sustainability. Will you still be participating in three months? six
months? a year? It's long term that matters.

> > A 7 day minimum restriction means some issues, even if urgent, may go 5
> > weeks without being voted on.
> I think 5 weeks is fine if they're not urgent. If they're urgent then
> we can deal with them at the next meeting or by email; I explicitly
> say that urgent things can be dealt with speedily.

What's the point? The board can defer things on its own with or without
this rather onerous resolution.

> > All items can and should be put on the agenda. The board has the right to
> > defer any issue for further consideration.
> The board can always decide to consider something immediately.
> Perhaps I should explicitly mention that, although I thought it was
> obvious from the discretion my resolution gives to the treasurer.

Surely you mean secretary or meeting chair. As I've said before, the board
does not need a resolution stating that we can or cannot deal with what
when, when we have the power to, as we have done, defer issues.

I would rather have now be the default and later be the fall-back than
later be default and now be the fall-back.

> > The only thing stopping inter-meeting discussion of resolutions is board
> > members not participating, and this resolution won't change that. People
> > have to choose to participate in order to do so.
> I think explicitly stating that they are supposed to participate, and
> explicitly ensuring that the `it was only posted 48 hours in advance'
> isn't an excuse because it's not true, and giving a period during
> which their attention may be required, will probably help.

I don't honestly believe any board member will change their behaviour in
the long term because of a resolution any more than any members of the
board who drink or smoke would stop doing so simply because we passed a
resolution stating they should stop. The behaviour will change by self-
and leadership-motivated board member involvement.

My opinion is fundamentally this:

Sitting on the board of directors -- any board of directors, not just
SPI's -- is a commitment. If someone is not willing to put the time in
without being pushed to do so, perhaps they shouldn't be on the board at
all. SPI's board of directors is *not* a huge commitment. Even as an
officer of the board it takes only a few hours per month of work. As an
administrative body we have some issues to consider and the duty to
discuss and make decisions on them. It's not asking a lot to ask people to
discuss these matters between meetings, but no matter how hard you try,
you won't succeed in getting full participation in any meaningful long
term manner by legislating it alone.

> > > 14. The above rules may in any case be deviated from in case of
> > > necessity, such as external deadlines, emergencies etc.
> >
> > These rules apply as long as they apply and if they don't apply well they
> > won't apply because we don't need them to apply unless they apply, but if
> > they do apply they do apply provided there are no reasons for them not to
> > apply.
> Don't be daft. These rules are guidance to the secretary and
> president (or whoever is writing the agenda or presiding over the
> meeting). I hope we can rely on then to interpret what's written in
> the way it's intended, and if not we can formally or informally
> clarify it.

Clause 14 of 2004-10-15.iwj.1 nearly explicitly says that this resolution
is nothing more than a set of recommendations, ie that the resolution is
not binding and has no effect. So you're putting onerous rules on and then
explaining that they're really just ideas and we should follow them when
it's convenient. It really doesn't make much sense to me, though it does
explain why some people are willing to bend these rules then turn around
and enforce them.

> > The meeting chair is already responsible for enforcing decorum and
> > administering the meeting in an efficient manner.
> Indeed, but it seems that I disagree with the secretary and/or meeting
> chair about what's efficient and I hope the board will agree with me.
> If the board agrees with me I trust the secretary and meeting chair to
> respect the wishes of the board, just as I will respect the wishes of
> the board if the vote goes against me.

The board has already demonstrated disagreement with this resolution by
carrying out efficient, effective discussions at our meetings. The
problems that led to the need for this resolution were related to a lack
of leadership, concern, and involvement, not a lack of rules.

Consider that at our last meeting we had 13 items on the agenda, three of
which were resolutions four of them required discussion, and one was a set
of minutes that required approval.

The entire meeting took under an hour.

A resolution was deferred to get more advice on it from interested
parties, two of the discussion topics were deferred to the lists, and the
remaining two were resolved on the spot. The minutes were approved

If we go by your logic, that took about 8 man-hours of board time, but
when I first begain watching the board I watched meeting after meeting
wasted on what?

Approving minutes.

That's right, entire meetings were dedicated to approving the minutes of
the last meeting, or of two or three meetings previous.

The problems of the board are being addressed not through legislation but
through proper chairmanship, respect of decorum and serious attention
given to the issues that need attention.

> > > 15. Guests will not be asked to state their name during the meeting.
> ...
> > The practice of having guests state their name to the channel has been
> > abolished independant of this resolution in favour of the secretary
> > receiving the list over the course of the meeting by private messages.
> That practice was abolished by 2003-09-01.iwj.1, which this new
> resolution explicitly supercedes. Therefore anything that was in
> 2003-09-01.iwj.1 which we want to continue should be in the new
> resolution.

The practice you legislate is asking people to state their names in the 15
minutes leading up to the name.

Personally I'd be quite happy with guests stating their names the first
time they spoke right in the channel. It'd make for better logs and
there's no requirement that we sit around waiting for them to say so.

This isn't a conference call and noone will be interrupted by an SPI
member stating their name part way through the meeting.

I have, though, for the last couple of meetings asked members to send me a
private message identifying themselves for the purposes of the meeting
minutes. This practice is not completely effective as people who have not
identified themselves sometimes speak and I may not notice till much
later, though there is no saying that this would be any different with
people stating their names to channel.

Bruce's suggestion of everyone using their real names as IRC handles is a
good one, though for people with smaller windows having 15 to 20-letter
nicks at the start of each line can make quite a mess of their screen.

As a compromise I can either do...

> > Following the suggestion of a member, future minutes will include both the
> > name and the on-line handle of all present, in the interests of
> > understanding logs.

or, alternatively regex the log to change the nicks to names.

The log would thus have everyone's names as an accurate record of the
meeting, but the meeting itself will not be faced with the above problem,
though the unchanged log with the legend of who is who is a more accurate
record of the meeting.

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

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