Meetings: disciplining the mind and the body

While re-reading Jeffrey Pfeffer’s (1992) Managing with Power, I was struck by Pfeffer’s linking of power to brute physical endurance. By endurance, Pfeffer doesn’t mean the ability to benchpress more than one’s weight, but the ability to not step out from a meeting for a bathroom break* or the ability to work long hours on limited sleep. Although some strategic readers might opt to strengthen their bladders or invest in astronaut diapers to avoid missing an important part of a meeting, perhaps we should ask a deeper question about whether such stamina is warranted.

When I first started observing Burning Man senior staff meetings, decision making consisted of arduous, drawn-out affairs. One 45 minute-long discussion about a proposed $500 budget item for camels almost sent me, the observer, into a comatose state beneath the conference table. Because the senior staff used decision making by consensus in which all participants were supposed to agree on matters (as opposed to voting), discussion could generate wild swings. Some participants felt blind-sided by the topics brought up for discussion. Other participants experienced the gamut of undesirable outcomes: upsetting conflicts, hurt feelings, agreement out of sheer exhaustion, and a dread of future meetings. Over time, organizers learned to initiate informal discussions ahead of meetings so that people were prepared for decision making. Thus, organizers introduced enough structure to encourage decision making moments, rather than subjecting everyone to physical endurance trials.

* Among academics, those who leave risk getting assigned to committee work.

Organizational memory

Organizations that have moderate to high turn-over among its members, such as McDonalds and other low-wage workplaces and voluntary associations, face a challenge. They must pass down knowledge that often is taken-for-granted (e.g., tacit memory about the correct sequence of, say, placing hamburgers on a grill or the proper steps for pulling together a meeting) to new members. Typically, organizations use routines, orientations and trainings, handbooks, and record-keeping to orient and acclimate new members. But what happens if these structures are not in place? The lack of such structures may be symptomatic of under-organizing’s insufficient structure or coordination.

For the Burning Man organization, such underorganizing was glaringly evident when key persons departed suddenly, forcing remaining and new members to re-establish departments from scratch.  For instance, operations for the Gate, or the entrance to the Burning Man event, had to be recreated after a key leader left without leaving records of how to run the collection of tickets. At one point, I realized that as a researcher who had observed organizing activities over the years, I was a source of tacit organizational memory for others.  I was the one who reminded a volunteer manager that pamphlets had to go to the Gate for distribution to incoming participants; at times, I shared a version of my field notes for those who wanted a record of meeting activities.

In subsequent years, Burning Man organizers have introduced ways of sharing knowledge among members via volunteer mixers, departmental handbooks, record-keeping, and teamwork.  These changes have since smoothed over transitions as members depart or join.  Undoubtedly, not all knowledge passes down, which suggests the potential for re-invention or innovation.