Meetings as “improvisational garbage cans”

from Flickr user tiarescott http://www.flickr.com/photos/tiarescott/69821764/

from Flickr user tiarescott http://www.flickr.com/photos/tiarescott/69821764/

I’m reading the book Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership by Bolman and Deal right now and am in the chapter titled “Organizations as Theater.” I love this section about meetings from the chapter.

March and Olsen (1976) were ahead of their time in depicting meetings as improvisational “garbage cans.” In this imagery, meetings are magnets attracting individuals looking for something to do, problems seeking answers, and people bringing solutions in search of problems. The results of a meeting depend on a serendipitous interplay among items that show up: Who came to the meeting? What problems, concerns, or needs were on their minds? What solutions or suggestions did they bring?

Garbage can scripts are likely to play out in meetings dealing with emotionally charged, symbolically significant, or technically fuzzy issues. The topic of mission, for example, attracts a more sizable collection of people, problems, and solutions than the topic of cost accounting. Meetings may not always produce rational discourse, sound plans, or radical improvements. But they serve as expressive occasions to clear the air and promote collective bonding. Some players get opportunities to practice and polish their lines in the drama. Others revel in the chance to add excitement to work. Audiences feel reassured that issues are getting attention and better times may lie ahead. But problems and solutions characteristically linger on, detached from one another.

Today I spent most of my day in meetings. Some of that time was very productive and worthwhile, and some was not. It’s easy and lazy to blame the meeting facilitator about a bad meeting, but doing so is also a waste of time. What I need to realize and remember is that meetings are not always about “getting things done.” Meetings can also serve other important purposes. I love this sentence from the quote above, “Meetings may not always produce rational discourse, sound plans, or radical improvements. But they serve as expressive occasions to clear the air and promote collective bonding.”

If I’m not engaged or interested in the meeting topic at hand, I can shift my focus to the players in the meeting to see what else is really happening. What roles are we all playing in this drama (using language from Bolman and Deal)? What things aren’t being said? If I don’t like what is happening, how might I add to the conversation to make our time together more successful?

Adequate team members show up to each meeting. Remarkable team members make the meeting better by their participation, ability to listen, and their focus on the other people in the room.

3 thoughts on “Meetings as “improvisational garbage cans”

  1. Curt says:

    “Adequate team members show up to each meeting. Remarkable team members make the meeting better by their participation, ability to listen, and their focus on the other people in the room.”

    ________________

    Amazing line, Curt.

    Well said.

    I needed that reminder!

    I hope you’re doing well, by the way. Been a while!

    Bill

  2. I can think of a whole lot better ways to ‘promote collective bonding’ than a meeting!

  3. Scott,

    Prisoners bond against the warden as do attendees against the meeting leader.

    CR, meeting leader 😉

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