Once, long ago, in days when I practiced the arcane art of managing people and organizations, I was asked to coordinate a meeting among the leaders of the important Natural Resources agencies in Central Oregon.
In our minds that was the Deschutes National Forest, the Ochoco National Forest, and the Prineville District of the Bureau of Land Management.
That perception would change, but more about that in a minute.
I’m good at this kind of thing, but it still took a full year to coordinate the calendars of 40 or so senior leaders and to set a meeting date.
At the end of a day long agenda- driven gathering, those who were there agreed that it had been a good meeting, that it was too bad so many senior leaders had to send their trusted deputies, and wasn’t it too bad we couldn’t get closure on any important issues. And let’s not let so much time go by before the next meeting. Thanks to Rod for coordinating.
And finally we all went away vaguely dissatisfied, but not before I was granted the fun of coordinating the next meeting six months downstream. I had a good laugh over that. And I knew we would have another meeting with those who were second in command. Not a good way to do business.
I admit to a second failure. Most of the key leaders, the CEO’s, could meet on such-and-such a date, but the BLM District Manager had to be in Washington DC, or on an alternate date, the Forest Supervisor of the Ochoco would be in Eugene to testify in law suit, etc., etc., etc.
Inspired, I gave the job to my wonderful secretary who worked with the other wonderful secretaries. Nothing matched for the next twelve months. After repeated frustrations, my secretary heaped me with abuse and decried the task as “impossible!
So…I relented and took the job back. And I was trapped once again “inside the box.”
The Power of Non-Agenda Driven, Informal Meetings
In a fit of disgust, frustration, inspiration, desperation, pick a word, I asked myself, “What action do we all take at roughly the same time?” The answer: We all eat lunch! And thus was born Friday Chowder.
I settled on the stratagem of making arrangements with a local restaurant for meeting space, a big pot of clam chowder, a big bowl of salad, soft drinks and coffee, all at a price that was ridiculously cheap. And then I sent out a message to the senior leadership saying there would be a Friday Chowder at the Cinnabar at 11:30 on whatever the date was.
All of my friendly CEO’s showed up, the same CEO’s who missed the “Big” meeting. One of them asked me what was on the agenda. I answered, perversely I seem to remember, “The agenda is to eat lunch together.” And in truth that’s what it was. I counted it a major victory just to have them all together at the same time.
There is Something I’ve Been Wanting To Talk About
There was some grumbling, but about 30 minutes into lunch after the usual chit-chat, the BLM District Manager, a good friend of mine, rocked back in his chair and said, “You know there’s something I’ve been wanting to discuss.”
And so it began. Those monthly Friday Chowders, which sometimes became Chinese Chowder, lasted over three years until the senior leadership had retired or had been promoted out of the area.
During that three year period, decisions were made regarding customer needs, issues of conflicting policies were settled, subordinate careers were planned, inter-agency teams were formed, one of the largest inter-agency emergency dispatch centers in the country became operational with responsibility for fire suppression on over 14 million acres of public land, operational costs went down, and efficiency improved.
Inter-Agency Communication Grew
As important as those gains were to us, perhaps more importantly we discovered there were other natural resources leaders who shared our need for and in fact hungered for some sensible conversation about natural resource management, customer needs, major planning efforts, etc., agencies like the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs, Oregon Department of Forestry, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the US Soil Conservation Service, etc.
Friday Chowders just blossomed. Inter-agency specialist teams asked for time to talk to the “bosses.” Even our local County Judge, the CEO of Crook County, came and shared chowder with us.
And it was a wonderful time for our part of the national bureaucracy.
So what’s the moral of the story?
There may be several:
- Some of our most important conversations never take place in agenda driven settings
- The social lubrication necessary for cooperative action may never happen in an agenda setting
- It is easier to invite partners into an informal setting
- Hallway conversations become open discussions
- Courage and candor become commonplace
- Creativity becomes commonplace
- Good ideas flourish
- Continuous mentoring takes place
- Senior managers have a forum for sharing “street wisdom”
Agenda Driven Meetings
This doesn’t mean agenda driven settings have no place in the pantheon of management tools. Training is agenda driven; financial reporting is agenda driven; long-range planning is agenda driven, and I’m sure you can identify other uses for agenda driven meetings.
All I’m really saying is tremendous power can be found in informality, recurrent face to face communication, and in making room for those, “I’ve been thinking,” conversations.
Besides, everyone eats lunch.
Two stories illustrate the change:
First one: The archaeologists from the BLM, the Forest Service and the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs decided it made sense to work together on geographic areas without reference to organizational boundaries. They put a proposal together, asked to come to a Friday chowder, made their pitch and got the nod to proceed right on the spot.
Second one: The BLM, the Ochoco National Forest, and the Deschutes National Forest each charged a different amount per cord to woodcutters, much to the frustration and disgust of the woodcutters. With the exception of commercial firewood companies, most of our customers were simply wanting a few cords of wood for personal use. The CEO’s listened to a group of clerks who sold the permits, decided there should be one permit at one price for Central Oregon available from any federal office. And yes, it was okay to work out arrangements with Bi-Mart, GI Joes and other outlets to sell firewood permits. Result: happy customers and happy employees.
For more about my experiences with management issues, see my book “What Do I Do When I Get There?“