The Art of Running an Internal Meeting | THE POLITICUS

The Art of Running an Internal Meeting

Most civil servants have to attend numerous meetings that only involve members of their own division, branch or section. It is essential to have as many of these meetings as possible so that the business of government can run suitably slowly. There will usually be at least one of each of these meetings in every month; however experienced civil servants can usually schedule at least two section meetings in that time, if not weekly section meetings. The longer these meetings can go for the better, as this takes people away from communications with the outside world and gives them less time to work on their projects. Such meetings are apparently to make sure that people know what is going on within the division, section or branch. This is potentially dangerous if taken seriously, as you really don’t want people to know what you are, or are not, working on.

Please don’t worry about this; a good civil servant can use them to achieve exactly the opposite. When you do have to speak, make sure that you can talk for at least ten minutes without telling anyone anything they don’t already know.

If you are a beginner and not confident in your ability in this area, it is best just to say that everything is on track. Then you can sit back and watch the masters work their magic. Such meetings, if run well, can last for up to half a day and become an endurance test for all involved.

Everyone present, especially those who do not see it as an opportunity for procrastination and obstruction, should dread a good internal meeting. Those sincere and proactive government employees who feel an urge to ‘make things happen’ need to be ground down and reduced to quivering messes. Below are some tips to help extend the life of these meetings as much as possible.

Let everybody have a say

There are many people in government who love the sound of their own voice and who will be happy to dribble on to anyone who will listen. It is important to let these people have an agenda item as this will fill everyone else with dread even before the meeting has begun. In addition to this, there are large numbers of extremely insecure people who feel that when they have the chance to speak about their project, they need to explain everything that has happened, will happen, and is ever likely to happen. And I mean everything. These people could test the patience of the Dalai Lama. When this happens every month, it turns a meeting into a sort of ‘show and tell’ session, similar to what used to happen when you were at primary school.

Organise a presentation

Having an external person coming in to give a presentation at the end of the meeting will add to the endurance required. Find an ‘expert’ in a field (preferably a boffin) who wants to come and talk about their project. This can be promoted as an attempt to broaden the knowledge of those present; however, what it really does is raise levels of boredom to almost insufferable levels as your invited expert gets into the practical details of their project. They do their best to explain the mysteries of their research to people who have no interest, don’t give a shit, and basically would rather subject themselves to physical torture than listen to this drivel.

Ask a question that you know will result in a long and confusing response

Where, despite your efforts, it appears that a meeting is running too smoothly, you should have some back-up plans ready. One of the best plans is to have some questions prepared for those people you know like to hear the sound of their own voice, or are insecure enough not to be satisfied until they have told you everything they think you might possibly want to know. This takes the responsibility of extending the meeting away from you and on to the responder. If you do this before it is your turn to speak you can use up valuable time, increase people’s levels of boredom and frustration, and so further reduce the amount of attention they are likely to pay to your own long and rambling explanation of the status of your projects.

Spread confusion

This is something that you will be able to do with increasing effectiveness the higher up the ladder you climb within government. For instance, if you have become a Branch Manager, you will be able to use branch meetings to hold the floor, using your time and influence to talk about business planning matters, accommodation issues, and to bore people with what you heard at the Divisional Manager’s meeting. This is where the Director tells you what happened at the Corporate Executive meeting earlier on that week, in turn boring you. Most of what you have to say will be of very little relevance to most of the staff and will be repetition for your Section Managers, with whom you have already met. Talking down to your subordinates about senior management's problems will do two things. Firstly, it will make the meeting more of a trial, and secondly, it will allow you to pass on incomplete information that can then be taken out of context, providing fodder for all the Drama Queens who will go out and start their campaigns to spread tension and innuendo.

Chair the meeting

Where possible, see if you can have a go at chairing meetings. This puts you in control of the agenda and timelines and can let you practice your procrastination and obstruction methods on internal employees before you use them on external clients.

A good Chair will be able to give the most boring and tedious people the longest opportunity to speak and, while this can be a trial for the Chair, it is essential practice for when you get to positions of seniority. It gives you the chance to see how long you can make the tortuous meeting last (keep a record and try to beat it the next time you take charge), and you can also ensure that those annoying and enthusiastic staff members that cause so much trouble for everyone else by ignoring the five paradigms and trying to achieve outcomes, all have an agenda item and therefore have to come along. You will be able to take great joy from the grimaces and tortured looks on their faces as they contemplate the next couple of hours of unmitigated boredom.

George Fripley is the author of You Can't Polish a Turd - the Civil Servant's Manual and will soon release his second book The Dregs of History