What kind of meeting needs to be both big and long?
Many people’s first reaction might be “strategic meetings.” However, I don’t think it’s always the case. Most strategic meetings can be relatively small (involving about a dozen people) and not necessarily long (lasting for 2-3 days).
Meetings that touch on the top-level design, underlying assumptions, and systemic changes within an organization generally need to be both large and lengthy, and it can be challenging to delegate them.
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What are the topics that fall into this category, touching on top-level design, underlying assumptions, and systemic changes?
For example, meetings about mission, vision, and values.
For example, meetings about organizational governance mechanisms.
For example, meetings about significant historical stages or events, involving systematic retrospectives and corrections.
For example, meetings about the planning, design, and construction of critical organizational systems, such as streamlining core business processes or planning talent development and retention systems.
These topics are not only about tasks but also involve people, values, and ideas. They are related to both the past and the present, with significant implications for the future.
For such topics, if the meetings are not large enough or long enough, it can lead to lower quality decisions that may not withstand the test of time.
“Not large enough” refers to insufficient representation of participants. Insufficient representation can be both in terms of the quantity (not enough participants) and the quality (lack of diverse perspectives). If we were to use numbers to quantify “large,” for a company, it would typically involve at least forty to fifty participants to be considered “large.”
“Not long enough” means that not enough time has been invested. For example, trying to make a complex decision in a single meeting or even within a day may not be sufficient. Holding 2-3 meetings, each lasting 2-3 days, would be a basic standard for a “long” meeting.
Here are some examples of large and lengthy meetings from a political and social perspective:
For example, the Constitutional Convention of the United States in 1787 is a prime illustration. It involved 55 participants and lasted from May 25 to September 17. This convention was convened at a critical time when the previous Confederation faced financial instability, but its main focus and output were top-level design for the future. The outcomes of this convention, with only a few amendments added over the next two hundred years, have accompanied the United States’ development from a small new nation of approximately 3 million people to a global superpower.
Another example is the Second Vatican Council, commonly known as Vatican II, held from 1962 to 1965. This four-year-long council took place over several months each year and had an average of 2,400 participants. It produced 16 significant documents and resolved numerous historical issues, including ending the centuries-old “Chinese Rites Controversy.” Vatican II was both a retrospective meeting, a consensus on values, and a strategic consensus meeting.
These “large and lengthy meetings” have had a significant impact on future generations.
Of course, in terms of scale and complexity, a company cannot be compared to a country or a religious organization. However, within a company, there are also issues that warrant large and lengthy meetings, such as top-level organizational design. While it may not need to be as large or lengthy as the examples mentioned earlier, it certainly requires more than just a day or two and a few sessions to achieve high-quality consensus and design.
For instance, meetings related to the mission, vision, and values of a company. I know of some companies that conduct such meetings with about 50 participants, lasting approximately three days each quarter, and continue for 3-4 years.
I have also participated in some of these lengthy meetings myself, and I deeply understand that conducting large and lengthy meetings is not just a matter of intention; it is a matter of the organization’s capability. Bringing together a large group of people to discuss sensitive issues, controversial topics, abstract concepts, and uncertain matters, and then forming consensus, conclusions, and action plans, is an incredibly important organizational skill.
This is essentially a capability for “large-scale group dialogue.”
Who is responsible for this “organizational capability”? It is undoubtedly the company’s executive team, including the top leader. A company lacking the ability for “large-scale group dialogue” primarily faces this issue because its executive team lacks the ability for “small-scale group dialogue.”
In a sense, what is an organization? “A large group of people” is not an organization; “a large group of people capable of group dialogue” is an organization.
Companies whose executive teams cannot hold “large and lengthy meetings” or cannot facilitate “small-scale group dialogues” typically exhibit the following characteristics:
- The top leader lacks the ability or willingness to listen to diverse perspectives, including the patience to do so.
- The top leader and the executive team lack long-term vision and have narrow horizons. They are preoccupied with short-term concerns and, therefore, find it challenging to “define” the topics that require large and lengthy meetings, i.e., “what is critically important.”
- The top leader lacks a collaborator to plan such meetings (the top leader is not suitable to be the facilitator for these meetings).
- No one in the team has a deep understanding or high-level commitment to the topics under discussion, leading to a lack of quality proposals.
- There is a lack of writing skills to accurately document opinions and resolutions.
- There is a shortage of executives capable of engaging in meaningful dialogue with the top leader or even challenging their viewpoints.
- The executive team generally lacks abstract thinking skills and can only discuss concrete matters, not conceptual ideas.
- Executives often lack endurance and physical stamina, making it difficult for them to focus for extended periods.
- There is a lack of meeting arrangement and facilitation skills, leading to rapid fatigue and irritability among participants.
- The company’s business model is constantly in flux, leaving no room to discuss these “troublesome matters.”
These characteristics can hinder a company’s ability to engage in effective dialogue and decision-making processes at both large and small scales.
The long-term consequences of companies resorting to autocratic decision-making by the top leader, relying on “passion-driven decisions,” or avoiding complex issues until crises force urgent action can be detrimental:
- Drawer-style transformation: Decisions may be made and then forgotten, leading to a lack of follow-through on important initiatives.
- Lack of directional guidance: Without clear leadership on significant issues, middle-level employees may feel directionless, resulting in increased trial and error.
- Inconsistency in words and actions: Discrepancies between the company’s stated mission, vision, and values and its actual practices can erode trust and credibility.
- Ad-hoc decision-making: Making decisions impulsively, without careful consideration, can lead to suboptimal outcomes and unintended consequences.
- Issue generation: Attempting to solve one problem may inadvertently create a new set of challenges, leading to a cycle of ongoing issues.
- Repeated mistakes: Failing to learn from past mistakes and repeating them can hinder progress and innovation.
- Lack of systemic organizational capabilities: The company may struggle to develop the organizational capacity needed to address complex issues effectively.
- Survival of the fittest: A few individuals may wield disproportionate power and influence within the organization, marginalizing the concerns and interests of others.
- Misalignment among executives: A lack of alignment among top executives, coupled with a focus on short-term interests, can hinder the company’s long-term development.
In summary, the overall consequence of these behaviors is that the company may remain in a state of cliques, relying on personal relationships and informal power structures rather than evolving into a truly organized and effective entity.
In the context of organizations, when there is no consensus on matters involving top-level design, underlying assumptions, and systemic changes, it can lead to a lack of cohesion within the organization. This lack of cohesion often results in numerous meetings that are unproductive and inconclusive. If you observe that your organization has too many meetings with subpar outcomes, it may indeed be due to the absence of a crucial “large and long” meeting.
To summarize, whether an organization can hold “large and long” meetings is a critical indicator of its transformation from a clique-based structure to an organized entity. The Chief Organizational Officer’s mission is to “empower the leadership team and co-create a better organization.” The emphasis on “empowering the leadership team” is rooted in the fact that an organization is fundamentally composed of “a large group of individuals capable of group dialogue.” The ability of a large group to engage in collective dialogue begins with the leadership team’s capacity to conduct “small-scale group dialogues.”
In essence, the capability to hold substantial and extended meetings is a reflection of the organization’s readiness to tackle complex issues collectively and evolve from a clique-based structure into a truly organized and effective entity.