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stupid people in large groups September 18, 2009

Posted by That Guy in Conference Call, Experiences, Meeting Minutes, Pictures.
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You’ve probably seen this:

You can purchase this poster at Despair.com.

You can purchase this poster at Despair.com.

And you’ve probably also heard this:

The IQ of a crowd is equal to the IQ of its least-intelligent member divided by the number of individuals in the crowd.

The same thing applies to any meeting you’re in — the smaller the group, the smarter it is, and there’ll be an equivalently-smaller number of stupid questions. But get into a large group…

Here are two notable examples from my own experience:

Weekly Technology Conference Call: At my previous job, one of my tasks was to sit in on (and occasionally contribute to) the weekly technology conference call where Dan, the head of the technology group, would let us know about updates and changes to our web apps and allow us to ask any questions we deemed necessary so we could disseminate that information to our employees. Good plan, right?

Nope. Because there were 20 of us on the call plus Dan, and it was always Roy in Salt Lake City who had to ask specific questions about how updates to TOM, our primary internal database app, would affect his customers in SLC. Complete with examples. And Roy had such a booming, deep voice that even though he would say “Dan, this is Roy in Utah” we all immediately (a) knew it was him and (b) tuned out for the next five minutes while Roy and Dan haggled over tiny points that were irrelevant to everyone else.

Mercury Meeting: Yesterday’s post about CorporateSpeak’s new Mercury system covers what happens in big meetings here at CS. Pretty much everyone starts asking stupider and stupider questions until one person asks the one smart question that shuts everyone up. I hate being that guy, but I usually have to do it.

Meanwhile, I’ve spoken before about how the derailer (ie: Roy) can be fought off. That only works in a small meeting, though; in a large meeting, people are afraid to gang up on the person asking stupid questions. It’s because of one of my favorite communication principles*, the spiral of silence:

The spiral of silence is a political science and mass communication theory propounded by the German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann. The theory asserts that a person is less likely to voice an opinion on a topic if one feels that one is in the minority for fear of reprisal or isolation from the majority.

I should write a whole post about the spiral of silence. Maybe I will. But for now, just know that it will happen in every big meeting you’re in. No one will tell Roy to shut up — not even Dan, the meeting moderator. I wonder if my replacement at my old job is still tuning Roy out.

He** probably is.

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* In college, I wrote a paper about how it’s not actually a theory because theories must describe, explain, and predict, and the spiral of silence in and of itself does not explain — at least, if I remember correctly, that was my position. I got an A, so I must have either gotten it right or done a spectacular job of BSing the professor.

** I happen to know it’s a man, which is why I don’t use a gender-neutral assignation here.


the folly of allowing employees to use smartphones December 30, 2008

Posted by That Guy in Conference Call, Meeting Minutes, Observations, Technology Trouble.

I can’t find the article right now, but a few weeks ago I read something about how people’s socializing behaviors are changing the more they use their smartphones. That is, the time they used to spend talking to people (even their own families) is now being spent doing more work — and play — on their smartphones, including but not limited to answering work e-mail, browsing the web, and staying updated on their social networks. And playing games. (I have to be honest; this game is pretty addictive, as simple as it is.)

I was in the same meeting I referenced in yesterday’s post. Very little useful information came out of it — it was mostly stuff we’d all covered before. My boss, myself, and my co-worker were all in the same room.

CC-licensed photo by Gail Jade Hamilton.

CC-licensed photo by Gail Jade Hamilton.

We were all on our phones — updating our social networks, complaining about how boring and useless the meeting was, checking and responding to e-mail, updating applications and software, talking to others via IM, and generally trying not to die from boredom. (There was one more person in the room; he was using the second computer in the room to finish a project.)

What’s the lesson here?

None of us were paying more than token attention to the conference call and accompanying shared-desktop PowerPoint presentation. In fact, I can’t remember more than three of the speakers’ names, and one was a VP at my office (she wasn’t in the room with the rest of us, because if she was she wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything else at the time).

Here’s the problem: with the sheer amount of work everyone has to do, and the sheer amount of time that’s spent in meetings, people need to steal back as much time as possible. Fortunately, companies want us to be as in-touch as we can be, so they get us smartphones… or pay for our smartphone plans… or just make it impossible for us to not buy smartphones ourselves and pay for them ourselves.

If you’re going to make it possible for us to do work on our phones, we’re going to do work on our phones. If it’s at a time that’s inconvenient to you because you’ve invited us to meetings that we don’t really need to be at*, then you’ll just have to deal with us checking and answering e-mail, updating our social networks (by complaining about the time wasted and boring nature of the meetings), and playing a game or two.

It’s the folly of allowing us to use smartphones. Every sword has two edges**.

* The VP of ours who was at this meeting walked by while I was writing this and said it was very boring and a waste of time, so that was nice.

** Not really. But I was too lazy to think of a better metaphor.

company-wide division-straddling project meeting August 26, 2008

Posted by That Guy in Conference Call, Meeting Minutes.

Last Wednesday, That Guy sat in on a company-wide, division-straddling conference call with added WebEx goodness. Here are some of the things he heard:

* “Let’s wait a few minutes to let everyone call in.” Because those of us who showed up promptly at 3pm felt like having our time wasted.

* “We won’t be answering specific questions on this call, so you’ll have to send them through e-mail.”

* Once again, the call focused on technology that specifically excludes That Guy’s division.

* “Can everybody see?” The person actually doing the instructional portion of the training was getting very, very frazzled by the fact that people were complaining about screen size. A common WebEx problem.

* Poor phone sound quality != good conference call.

* The one corporate guy on the call from That Guy’s division had had enough and finally said, “[Group leader], none of what you’re saying applies to the 23 offices in my division.” To which the Group Leader said, “okay, well, let’s talk about that off the call.” Why the 23 offices in That Guy’s division didn’t just log off in disgust is completely beyond comprehension.

* One of the people on the call — That Guy is pretty sure it was the representative from the third-party company providing the new technology — had a child who occasionally piped up.

* No one wanted to answer questions:
“I have a question, and it is x.”
*long pause*
“This is [Group Leader]. Can the person from [Third Party] answer that?”
*long pause*
“This is [Third Party]. Yeah, we don’t have plans to support that at this time.”
“This is [IT helpdesk for That Guy’s company]. Send us e-mails if you need help and we’ll try to get in touch with [Third Party] to get you answers.”
For what it’s worth, That Guy has followed those instructions to no avail.

* The phrase “action item” was used.

* The person who shared her desktop to run the instructional portion of the session was using IE6. That’s very disheartening.

* The third-party company is only supporting one small facet of a project that That Guy’s office, as an individual branch, completely supported on their own. That’s like saying HP only does support for their inkjet printers, but not their PCs, laser printers, cameras or fax machines; if you want support on those, figure it out yourself.

* One legitimate complaint of the third-party vendor is that they’re limited by the data That Guy’s company has provided. The company’s 100+ branches only got their system logins a couple of weeks ago; the sheer volume of data is overwhelming, and no additional money has been provided on a corporate level to do this project. No wonder the data’s not there… or wrong.

* All of the problems being reported by everyone except That Guy’s division will be solved in the next version of the software. Big surprise.