Always draw the elephant

I’ve noticed an anti-pattern in meetings, something to be avoided.

Perhaps you’ve heard the tale of the Blind Men and the Elephant.

Blind monks examining an elephant, an ukiyo-e print by Hanabusa Itchō (1652–1724).

Three wise men, blind with the frailty of age, were on a journey of discovery. Having never seen wondrous creatures like an elephant, they were delighted on their journey to come across an elephant and decided to experience it first-hand. In this case, literally, as the mahout allowed them to explore the elephant through touch. Afterward they headed to the tavern to drink and discuss their findings.

“The elephant,” the first wise man said, “is a thick and powerful snake, and smells of hay.” For, you see, he had been holding the animal’s trunk.

“No, no,” said the second man sharply, who had been stroking the animal’s flank. “The elephant is more like a great mountain of rough flesh, taller than a man, and smells of dirt!”

“You’re both idiots,” the third said. “The elephant is long and thin, and if you pull on it, you don’t want to know what you’ll smell like!” For it turned out this unfortunate had had a hold of the animal’s tail.

The moral of the story is not so much to avoid the rear end of elephants — though that might be good advice. The moral is that, if all you have is a part of the picture, you can be entirely wrong without even realizing it.

“Without realizing it” is crucial. In a pack of smart, self-aware thinkers, we do our best to take the other person’s point of view, to examine an issue from all sides. If we know we might be lacking information, we can hunt for it — but if we don’t, we can’t.

This lack of common knowledge comes into sharp focus in work meetings.

Each participant is possessed of different knowledge — some true, some important, some relevant. The trick is to get all the true, important, and relevant knowledge visible and shared. The challenge is that, like each wise man, each may think they have the complete picture. They may not know what they don’t know.

So you get together in a room. People start making points. Other people start shooting down those points, or pulling them apart with “yes but what if X” comments. Someone gets badly ratholed about a detail. Someone else starts shouting about process and before you know it a copy of Robert’s Rules Of Order has appeared out of nowhere.

Bob always carries a copy, just in case!

In the end you spend a huge amount of time sharing the information: each team has to explain what they’re talking about, translating it to the language of every other team in turn. And then you spend a ton more time reconciling the information, as each team has to dissect each other team’s presentation, requiring a readjustment of possibly all other teams’ contributions as well. With two people it’s annoying; with six, it gets ridiculous.

This is where the slides come in. I can’t believe I’m saying that, because I’m supposed to hate slides — but it’s not true.

I love slides. I hate boring slide decks.

Slide presentations are a process; a ritual. They have a few specific purposes, and this is one of them: providing an organizing process.

First, slides enforce a ‘presenting’ frame, allowing one-directional dissemination of crucial background information. According to the ritual, the presenter gets to present, and the audience ask questions–after the presentation (unless it truly is a clarifying question).

This lets the participants build common ground regarding the situation. It sets the terms that will be used, the basics, and what “everyone should know”. It gets people on the same page — a necessary but not sufficient condition for useful arguing and decision-making. From a functional perspective, it reduces the quadratic time to inform to linear time, though possibly with a larger constant.

Second, the work to prepare the slides must necessarily include a form of nemawashi, prep work behind the scenes to build support and gather information. The slides should represent an overall viewpoint, not just the limited viewpoint of the person presenting. The presenter must keep in mind that they are serving as a kind of mirror or lantern, reflecting or shedding light on the current situation.

Finally, crucially, the presentation must not take the bulk of the meeting. The goal of the presenter is to give just enough context to foster discussion.

After building common ground, you can get to work.

At the very least, each person has seen — if not understood or integrated — everyone’s contributions. Perhaps they each have their own model, sketched out on a napkin or notepad during the other presentations, of how it all fits together.

Now all you have to do is reconcile these separate models, rather than doing pair-wise reconciliation or worse. And that’s a huge win.

Does every meeting need this? No. Is it useful more often than you might think? Probably.

Obligate infovore. Antiviral blogger. All posts made with 100% recycled electrons, sustainably crafted by artisanal artisans. He/him/his.

Obligate infovore. Antiviral blogger. All posts made with 100% recycled electrons, sustainably crafted by artisanal artisans. He/him/his.