Meetings Are Ok, But Not To Deliberate
In Dutch we have a word: overleggen. The closest word in English that comes to mind is to deliberate: consciously and intentionally weighing alternatives. In Dutch we talk about overleggen in the sense of having a meeting. In a sense deliberating is the opposite of Design Thinking. In a Design Thinking state of mind, you also have meetings — moments in time when people meet — but not to deliberate.
Deliberation breeds more deliberation
Deliberating starts from the premise that you can collect all the necessary information, analyse it objectively, weigh alternatives based on clear and objective criteria and then choose a path that will lead to success. In a complicated world this is true. And deliberative meetings have become hugely popular in organizations. I know people that only have meetings like this, all day, every day. If things are too complicated to deliberate in one meeting, you just break the problem down into parts and organise working groups that can deliberate on the parts. Deliberation generates deliberation. If the problem is not solved, deliberate more.
Deliberation in trouble
But at some point these deliberations run into a problem. At some point the world is no longer only complicated, but complex. This means:
- the amount of information that has to be processed becomes too big for deliberation,
- the outcomes becomes unpredictable so you cannot weigh alternatives anymore.
So what to do? Deliberate more of course. More working groups, more deliberations, more documents, memo’s, management layers. Until the whole organization comes to a standstill.
In Team of Teams Stanley McChrystal describes what happens when procedures and deliberation is no longer capable of handling the complexity of the situation created by all the technology in a modern airplane: the plane crashes. The problem in many organizations is that there is no plane crash. There is a fairly large amount of leeway. You can build deliberation onto deliberation and layer and layer of working groups, boards and committees before your organization comes to a crash. Massive failure of IT projects where budgets are massively overrun without delivering any value don’t have the impact a plane crash has. And that is a shame. Because the leeway organizations have creates a we-did-our-best-so-we-can’t-be-blamed culture. If nobody died we can go on deliberating. What more can you do than organize another working group?
Deliberation is based on the idea that the problem, the system, can be known in its entirety. Maybe it’s complicated, but we can know it. Maybe we have to split the systems up into parts and study each part individually, but we can know it. This system worked like a charm. Ever since Frederick Taylor gave birth to scientific management, production performance has gone through the roof, costs have dropped to the bottom, the economy has blossomed like never before. It has spawned an entire class of managers. But the fundaments that caused the scientific management to blossom are gone. Today you can talk about a problem all you want, but you can’t solve it by only talking about it anymore.
You have to do something. You have to try, fail, learn, take small steps, make before you know it all, move before you are ready. The only way to navigate complex problem spaces is by trial and error, by learning by doing. That is what Design Thinking does: make stuff, prototype with incomplete information to get ahead, to learn. Prototypes enable you to learn, to communicate clearly, to test, to validate, to clarify. Even without knowing the entire system, even with no clear best solution, you can still move ahead. Design Thinking creates a new paradigm that says goodbye to the deterministic reductionistic approach of scientific management that has created all the deliberative meetings. Design Thinking opens op the doors to a more holistic, explorative way to solve problems. Design Thinking still needs people to come together. But not to deliberate, to weigh, but to co-create, to validate, to learn from each other, to challenge assumptions, to make mistakes.
No prototype, no meeting
That is why they have a cool poster at IDEO that states a rule they have for meetings: “No prototype, no meeting.” This rules states that you cannot come into a meeting without a prototype. The reason is that without a prototype, meetings turn into deliberations.
So, next time you are invited to a meeting, stay clear of overleggen and bring something, a prototype of sorts to change the conversation, change the game. Even if nobody asked you to bring a prototype, make one and bring it. Disrupt the deliberation and create a path to another way of solving problems.
Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, don’t forget to hit the clap button. I will dive deeper into the topics of Design Leadership in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also connect with me onLinkedIn.