Can ‘silent meetings’ solve your IT planning woes?

On occasion, I have written about some truly mind-boggling IT fads, but those articles only just begin to scratch the surface of some of the crazier trends that I have seen over the years. Recently, for example, I was introduced to the concept of silent meetings, which have been adopted by many companies, including some giant tech companies.

Silent meetings seem to have been created as a way of countering two universal truths about traditional staff meetings. The first of these truths is that meetings are often a huge waste of time. The second is that almost nobody adequately prepares for meetings. We are simply too busy, too lazy, or too disinterested. Sure, there are exceptions to both of those (so I guess they aren’t actually universal truths), but based on my own experience, they tend to hold true more often than not.

So, what’s the deal with a silent meeting anyway? The basic idea is that rather than someone presenting a PowerPoint presentation to a group of attendees who all wish that they were somewhere else, the attendees spend their time in the meeting reading and typing on their laptops. Seriously.

Here is how it works. The person who is calling the meeting creates a document detailing everything that they want to discuss. This document commonly includes more than just bullet points. It is a detailed synopsis of the topic at hand and is written with the assumption that those who will be attending the meeting have done zero prep work and know little to nothing about whatever it is that is being discussed. These documents obviously vary in length, but the average length seems to be around six pages.

silent meeting

When the meeting begins, all of the attendees are given access to the document through whatever collaboration platform the company happens to use. The attendees each use their time in the meeting to silently read the document (a practice that is sometimes called a table read). As they do, the attendees add their questions or comments to the document. The meeting organizer keeps track of these questions and comments as they are made, and spends the last five or ten minutes of the meeting time verbally addressing the top questions and comments.

So, the big question is can this approach to meetings help with the IT planning process? In all honesty, my guess is that the use of silent meetings could be beneficial in some very specific situations, but in other situations, this approach would probably do more harm than good.

Case against silent meetings

I will be the first to admit that the concept of silent meetings seems like a really bad idea. It isn’t just that this approach to meetings is far different from what most of us are probably used to, but rather that it carries with it some significant disadvantages.

For starters, silent meetings encourage employees to check out. Think about it for a moment. If all of the meeting attendees are silently reading the document that has been provided, then what is to stop an employee from pretending to read the document while they actually check their email, visit a social networking site, or text message a friend? Sure, these sorts of things go on during normal meetings too, but attendees of a normal meeting can’t completely check out because there is always the chance that they will be called on. That risk goes away in silent meetings, leaving the employee free to do whatever they want.

Another disadvantage to silent meetings is that the format isn’t compatible with brainstorming. Silent meetings only work when material is prepared ahead of time. If the goal of a meeting is to brainstorm ideas, then a more traditional meeting format is needed.

One more disadvantage to the use of silent meetings is that they actively discourage preparation, and likely cause meetings to go on for longer than would ordinarily be required.

If the entire meeting is based around a document that was prepared by the meeting organizer, then there is no opportunity for meeting participants to review the material in advance of the meeting. After all, the meeting organizer assumes that everyone will read the document during the meeting. Hence, everyone except for the organizer enters the meeting unprepared (which is one of the defining characteristics of silent meetings).

At the same time, this lack of preparation leads to longer meetings. If a silent meeting consists of fifty minutes of silent reading and ten minutes of discussion, then the duration of that meeting could have potentially been reduced from an hour to ten minutes had everyone been given the opportunity to prepare ahead of time.

When silent meetings might be useful

silent meeting

Clearly, I’m not a big fan of silent meetings. Even so, they can be useful when it comes to IT planning. The key to making successful use of a silent meeting (at least as it pertains to IT planning) is to treat the meeting similarly to an RFC document.

For those who might not be familiar with RFC documents, RFC stands for “Request for Comment.” These documents (which sometimes use slightly different names) are typically technical documents for which the author is requesting feedback on a proposed specification.

In the case of IT planning, one or more individuals within the IT department might draft a proposal for an upcoming IT project and then present that proposal in a silent meeting. The silent meeting would give everyone a chance to review the proposal and make comments.

There are two main reasons why I think that this approach has merit. First of all, it encourages involvement from those who might otherwise have been overlooked. I can’t help but think back to some of the positions that I held early in my IT career. In those organizations, the IT managers almost always made decisions without any input from junior level IT staff members. Presenting an IT planning document to the entire IT staff during a silent meeting gives everyone on the staff a voice. It allows everyone in the IT department to comment on the proposal regardless of their position in the organization’s hierarchy.

The other reason why I think that silent meetings could be beneficial in the IT planning process is the fact that everyone’s comments are submitted in writing, typically by attaching those comments directly to the document that is being reviewed. How many times have you sat in a meeting in which somebody presented a great idea, but by the end of the meeting everyone had forgotten all about it? The document collaboration process used in silent meetings ensures that no one’s comments are lost.

Maybe absurd … maybe useful

Even though silent meetings might be an absurd alternative to traditional meetings, they can actually be quite useful when it comes to planning IT projects. In order for these types of meetings to be successful however, someone will have already had to do a significant amount of work ahead of time. The silent meeting is then used as a peer review process for the ideas that are being proposed. Ideally, this review process should involve the entire IT staff. That way, everyone knows what is going on and has a chance to offer improvements to the ideas that are being proposed.

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