Meaning Guide

Why you should make your meetings more disturbing

What fish can teach us about setting up effective meetings

What’s communication like during a typical meeting?  Our normal model is very linear – a whole series of these:

This linear pattern derives from Claude Shannon, whose model is still the basis of what’s taught in most business communication textbooks.  Someone thinks of an idea, they encode their idea in words, those words are decoded by the listeners, who update their ideas … repeat for as long as you have time in the meeting.

The thing is, Shannon’s theory was derived from reflection on communication between machines.  When you stop and pay attention to what actually happens in meetings between human beings, it’s nothing much like this.  People don’t listen to each other properly, they interpret words differently, someone is scribbling on a flipchart, and most things are happening simultaneously, not in discrete steps.  To get more out of our meetings, we need to update our models of how they work.  And this is where tuna fish come in.  I think we need to be more like tuna fish.

I need to explain.

Making use of the water around us

Bluefin tuna are preternaturally agile for their size and muscular configuration.  Apparently they are seven times more agile than they should physically be capable of.  Scientists have built robotic models to figure out how they do it, and the secret, it turns out, is that they take advantage of the kinetic energy in the swirls and eddies of the water around them.  The cool thing is, a lot of this energy they actually produce themselves, by using their bodies to disturb the water.1

Take a second to imagine what it would be like to be a tuna fish, sensing the flow of water around you, influencing that flow, and using it to go where you want to go.  Then read Andy Clark from Edinburgh University, who has used this research to provide a really helpful analogy for human cognition:

“Now consider a reliable feature of the human environment, such as the sea of words.  This linguistic surround envelops us from birth.  Under such conditions, the plastic human brain will surely come to treat such structures as a reliable resource to be factored into the shaping of on-board cognitive routines.  Where the fish flaps its tail to set up the eddies and vortices it subsequently exploits, we intervene in multiple linguistic media, creating local structures and disturbances whose reliable presence drives our ongoing internal processes.  Words and external symbols are thus paramount among the cognitive vortices which help constitute human thought.”

In other words, the words we speak during meetings, the bullet points we note down, the sketches we draw, the “multiple linguistic media” we employ to try to make sense of what’s going on when we get together to solve problems, they are not just “transmissions” being sent from one brain to another.  They are not separate from our cognitive processes, they are an extension of them.  We don’t just speak in meetings so that other people can hear what we are saying and respond.  We speak so that we can hear what we’re saying and respond.  As EM Forster famously wrote, “how do I know what I think until I see what I say?”  Each speech act is an experiment, a model of the world that we project into the world to see how it feels.

Now this is all very well when we are just thinking things through on our own.  But once we are in a meeting room with lots of other people, we tend to presuppose that we are all swimming in the same water, just because we’re hearing the same words.  And that even when we are swimming in the same water, we are disturbing it in a way that propels everyone in the same direction.

If this sounds a bit nebulous, I apologise.  But for me it chimes beautifully with what it feels like to actually be in a meeting2– the feeling of things either making sense, connecting together, propelling us forward, or the sense of being large fish flapping around aimlessly.  The lesson of the tuna is that the way things go is as much about the environment as it is about the fish.

Disturbing meetings in a good way

Let’s make this more practical.

What is your typical meeting environment like?  Is it easy to “disturb”?  Are there easy tools to hand for making eddies and ripples and vortices that the group can push off?  Is the cultural water static or dynamic?  Are the meanings of words seen as malleable and contestable, or fixed and sacred?  Do you hang generic prints on the walls in meeting rooms that just get in people’s way, or cover them with magnetic whiteboard?  Where is the ready supply of post-it notes?  Do people have to spend time running around looking for fresh marker pens?  Do facilities complain about blue-tac marks on the walls, or is there a box of the stuff in the corner?  Where’s the supply of generic props that people can grab in order to explain tricky concepts that have only just come into being?  The building blocks, the lego bricks, the perspex cubes, whatever?

You may think so far, so design thinking.  But I think you can push the analogy a lot further.  If you are meeting to solve a problem in a particular known domain, then do you have a reference model of that domain that everyone understands?  Just to check that you really are all swimming in the same water?  A system map, a process map, a rich picture?  If not, do your people have the materials, the training and the wherewithal to quickly build one on the spot?

And what about the cultural factors?  In your culture, when someone asks “what do you mean by that?” does it come across as curious or provocative?  Is it an invitation to create another eddy in the water, to generate momentum and energy, or a challenge to be closed down?  Does it feel easy to check that we really are all swimming in the same stretch of ocean?

The bluefin tuna is agile and responsive not because of its physiology, but because it uses its environment to its advantage.  Human beings are exactly the same.  How can we re-engineer the physical and cultural environments of our meetings to achieve the same end?

  1. This is all derived from the Appendix to Andy Clark’s 2011 book Supersizing the mind p225.  The original research into bluefin tuna, which I have not read, is Triantafyllou and Triantafyllou 1995.
  2. btw I’m talking here about real meetings, where the situation is ambiguous, action needs to be taken, and people have different perspectives to bring to the table.  Pointless, bureaucratic, routine meetings are another story

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