A few thoughts on peer-to-peer networks in meetings

Johnnie Moore

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

I was rereading this post from 2008 this morning and thinking again about this little model, spotted then by Roland Harwood.

The gist of the post, and Roland’s argument, was that we tend to overvalue networks that look like A and B, partly because we can’t follow all the conversations in C, and therefore assume they are of little value.

Look at most organisational charts or processes for meetings, and they mostly reflect that kind of thinking.

I was thinking there could be an animated version of A as well. This might represent what happens in meetings when there is a keynote speaker, followed by say Q and A. The node that gets all the connections would change but the essential model would remain the same. There would be superficial novelty but not much real change.

In practice, one of my beefs with Q and A is that it purports to introduce interactivity to meetings but is often deadly dull. Generally after a speaker has already gone on too long, the more fidgety members of the audience need to do something different, and that may take the form of an overlong question that actually is more annoying to much of the audience than the speaker has been. What would often be much better is a complete break in the pattern. Have you noticed the energy level soar when we break for drinks? I don’t think it’s just the liquids.

I think plenary sessions of all kinds are very vulnerable to this kind of hijacking. Someone speaks and someone else bursts in with what they think is a helpful or important point… but what is also happening is that we are forcing everyone else in the room to stay stuck in listening mode… except for the most impatient who will be queueing up to leap in with their point.

I think it’s challenging for us all to maintain a sense of the whole audience in the room, and for processes to break down to one-to-one conversations that have to be witnessed by people who are not that interested. If you can’t break the plenary format, I’m in favour of maintaining very tight boundaries around timing of contributions… but really, I think the best approach is move to a more C-like format.

One objection to those more informal methods comes from people who say that they can’t know everything that’s happening in the room. But I would counter that methods A and B only allow the illusion of hearing everything by throttling the amount that can actually be said by most people and forcing it to remain unspoken.

I was talking to someone about this earlier, and set in the broader context of the rise of peer-to-peer technologies. It feels to me like our habits in meetings and organising are rather lagging what technically is now possible. I’d add that for those things that do have to be sent out in a one-way fashion, there are loads of ways of doing that online that don’t actually require human beings to go the trouble and cost of being in the same physical space together.

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