If the TV shows 30 Rock and The Office (the original U.K. version, that is) had a baby, you would end up with something like the BBC sitcom W1a. This rapid-paced sitcom, which takes place in the technologically advanced yet frighteningly devoid of common sense BBC TV headquarters in London, follows middle and senior levels managers in the midst of a seemingly endless string of PR crises and corporate reorganizations.
There are cautionary tales aplenty in every episode, from the frustration of a top-heavy organizational structure in which no one actually knows or does anything, to cutting edge conference room technology that malfunctions with the simplest of tasks, to corporate jargon so meaningless that it is almost poetic.
Despite all the hilarious mishaps and shenanigans in each episode, the scenes that I found most painfully to watch were the management team meetings, usually in response to a totally avoidable PR crisis. Rather than come up with anything resembling a reasonable solution, these meetings end up setting off a comedy of errors that would have Shakespeare himself yelling at the screen.
I literally had to cover my eyes and take deep breaths as I watched these meeting scenes to keep my stress level in check: something about the dysfunction among this team struck a chord in me. But why?
Like everyone who has worked in an office job, I have sat through my share of ineffective meetings. And I am one of those people who actually likes meeting – I think they can be the most effective way of communicating information to a large number of people, determining a plan of action, and working through a challenge…..if they are done right.
The meetings in W1a go so spectacularly wrong that they make for a perfect learning opportunity.
1) Know who is running the show. Every meeting needs to have one or two people who are in charge of keeping the meeting on task and on schedule: let’s call them the ringmasters. The ringmasters need to have the authority to set the agenda, facilitate the discussion, ask pointed questions, and cut off tangential conversations. If no one seems to know why you are meeting and no one steps forward with a plan and mission, run away!
2) Establish clear goals and expectations. The first agenda item for every meeting should be to make sure everyone understands the purpose of the meeting. It’s not enough to state the purpose as a written agenda item: it’s important for the ringmaster to clearly articulate the purpose and goals for the meeting aloud. A meeting with no focus is a waste of time. A meeting at which everyone in attendance has different expectations is a recipe for disaster.
3) Ask questions and don’t assume anything. Don’t be afraid to ask for more background and context. If you aren’t following someone’s line of thought, ask for clarification. Just because someone has a specific job title or is in a more senior position doesn’t mean they know everything (in fact, on W1a it seems the higher the position status, the lower the competence level). If something doesn’t make sense to you, chances are someone else is confused too, and he/she will be grateful that you spoke up. If you have potentially useful information or a new perspective, share it!
4) Beware of people pleasers and eager beavers. If I had to pick the single most egregious offense of the meeting goers on W1a, it would be the desperation of the middle and upper-middle level managers to seem congenial and not cause a stir. The show certainly plays up the stereotype of the overly polite and even-tempered Brit, but it is spot-on in showing the damage that results from unquestioning deference and passive group-think. Someone who nods their head in agreement to everything and makes no unique contribution of their own to the discussion is not someone you need to take seriously.
5) Recap all decisions and next steps. As the above lessons have indicated, it is not uncommon for every person sitting in a meeting to have a slightly (or not so slightly) different understanding of the topics discussed. It’s critical for the ringmaster to take a few minutes at the end of the meeting and reiterate any decisions made, ensure everyone is clear on action items and next steps, and outline the plan for follow-up.
Follow these meeting best practices and #dogoodworkbetter!