Blog > What I learnt about productive meetings from tree planting and report writing

October 6, 2014

Many years ago I worked with an environmental program that was designed to help bring conservationists and farmers together, to help make agriculture productive and sustainable. Measuring productivity was easy – farmers knew how to collate the costs associated with their particular enterprise, and the market took care of the rest. It’s fairly straightforward economics to work out the inputs, outputs and profits.

What’s harder to assess, is why farmers continue to farm when it’s obvious they are not making much money. How do you put a price on the lifestyle that many of them relish?

A national assessment of the program suggested lots of indicators against which to measure the success of the program. They were all quantitative – could be counted one way or another. Easy to aggregate, easy to report, but it only told a part of the story. These numbers would tell us what was happening, but not why, and also missed some of the unexpected outcomes such as social connections, friendships and emotional support in trying times.

Then there’s writing reports. In another life I worked as a journalist, editor and sometimes writer. Much of my work was associated with taking pretty dry and verbose scientific reports and editing them into something readable without losing the meaning and intention. I had some great teachers and mentors who taught me about trimming away all that redundant text. The original authors were often horrified that their words had been trimmed from a fat tome to a slim volume. The measure of hard work, and success, was a nice fat report. We called them ‘door stops’ because that’s inevitable what they were used for.

More is better? Not always.

Similarly, in meetings I see the same reliance on outputs, on measures that are countable and obvious – how many people turned up, how many speakers and topics covered, how many ideas emerged? It’s interesting at some level, and provides some useful information, but it misses the potential of capturing what really was happening. Were people’s ideas honoured, were people changed by what they heard, did they feel part of community, were they engaged and contributing, were they willing to take risks, did they have a memorable experience that will stay with them? Inevitably, the answers to these questions are not immediately obvious.

Harder to measure? Yes. More interesting? You bet.


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