Another year of Zoom meetings: Have they helped or harmed?

We now have a wonderful opportunity to expand thoughtful deliberations on global problems, and accelerate the process of collective learning, using the internet, Zoom, and other platforms. And together find solutions that make the whole system healthy

Arun Maira

[From Unsplash]

It is two long years since a mysterious little virus appeared, and multiplied, and silently and invisibly swarmed around the world. It has created more terror than Al Qaeda, ISIS, and the Taliban. It was able to penetrate the defenses of the mightiest nations. Their high-tech drones and software hacks, that can disable an enemy’s defenses remotely, cannot even get a fix on where the control centers of this new enemy are. High-tech vaccines have been developed remarkably fast to protect lives. However, the virus pivots and turns, and mutates and reappears in other shapes. Vaccine makers and public health systems are jab-jabbing away—first, second, third, and fourth shots for some while millions in poorer countries wait for their first. How long will this have to go on? And will the virus ever go away?

We have been physically isolated from others for many months during these years. Like the sun breaking through from behind storm clouds briefly, we had moments of relief. But the storm came again. Like climate change, which is here to stay, and there is no use denying it, maybe Covid has changed the pattern of our lives permanently.

We might as well get used to meetings on Zoom and other platforms as the new normal. And learn how to enjoy them and make them more useful too. That is what I want to talk about today.

I must have participated in over 500 Zoom meetings since the first lockdown in India in March 2020. Some days there were as many four or five, and some days none. The sample size is large enough, and the variety too, for me to see patterns in the meetings. The meetings differed in their purposes. Many, especially initially, were just to stay in touch, to check out how others were doing. And to worry together about the uncertainties in which we found ourselves.

Lots of information, and misinformation, was shared about the virus and ways in which one could protect oneself. There were some weird ideas, taken very seriously though in the panic. For example, instructions were given by the management of our condominium to all residents not to use the toilets in the middle of our apartments because they did not have windows, and there was ‘scientific’ evidence (from the West of course where there are better scientists we must trust) that the virus comes up the toilet pipes.

Many meetings on Zoom and social media, of the “lets meet regularly type” continue to be preoccupied with news of the spread of the virus and precautions, especially if there is no other purpose for the meeting. Such meetings without agenda enable people to gripe together about problems out there, other than the virus too. These get-togethers serve the purpose of bonding and reassurance that we are in it together. At the most, they may unite their participants to complain and protest to the government. However, they cannot contribute to solutions because they are not designed to.

I want to participate in more meetings designed to produce collective insights for useful actions. Life is short, and with Covid and climate change this has become urgent. I would rather use my time creatively and positively than feel that my life is being wasted in helplessness about social and political problems, and Covid.   

Getting a system to work

I learned management on the job. I had leadership thrust upon me at a young age when the chairman of TELCO (now known as Tata Motors) sent me off as the number two man to Pune in 1973, where TELCO was building new factories to manufacture, as well as design, new models of trucks and buses. The complex machines required for producing the precision components of the vehicles would also have to be produced in the factories because the country did not have enough foreign exchange for their import. Moreover, people who could design and produce the machines and vehicles were not available in India then. Capable people too would have to be developed within the factory.

This was a very complex “systems development” problem. One layer of the manufacturing system was the vehicle production factory. Daimler Benz had taught TELCO how to run a vehicle production factory at Jamshedpur. However, the machines had been imported from specialized machine manufacturers. In Pune, this deeper layer of machine technology would have to be developed inhouse too. The third, even deeper, layer was the development of human capabilities for all this.

All three layers of the system had to be developed simultaneously. Designers and workers could not be trained off-line in some training school and brought to the factory when they were trained and the factory was ready to run. They may learn theories elsewhere. But they must learn by doing real work. Similarly, designers cannot learn only by designing machines on paper. They learn and improve their designs with feedback from operators. In short, we would be designing an aeroplane in which we would be risking ourselves by flying in it too.

Good coordination of activities, and learning, at all levels was essential for the success of the enterprise. A practice of a daily stand-up meeting was instituted. Many organizations adopt it. Heads of departments get together to sort out coordination matters amongst themselves. The ‘boss’ presides to get the whole picture and facilitate cooperation within the system.

In Pune, because of the diversity of activities, twenty to thirty people were required. They could fit into a large conference room, but only if they stood around the table. Standing for too long is uncomfortable so there was the need to conduct the meetings well and accomplish what needed to be done in half an hour if possible. Often it took longer if people did not follow the rules of the meeting, which I will explain.

The protocol was that each person in the room, going around the table, would speak in turn. Therefore, there was no time for long complaints or grandstanding. Since the purpose of the meeting was problem-solving, it was expected that people would speak only if they had a problem. And since there were many problems, it was natural that people would want to magnify the impact of their problem on the whole system so that they got attention.

The manager of the final assembly plant was always invited to speak first. He was the senior-most. Moreover, the successful performance of the entire system could be evaluated by the numbers of vehicles it was able to turn out. So, best start with outcomes first.

People have ways to attract attention to their needs (and their own importance too). Having said that the shortfall in production was because some part had not been delivered to the assembly line, the manager was wont to carry on and explain the consequences of his problem. “If we do not deliver the vehicles the sales department has ordered, customers will be unhappy. In fact, the sales manager was complaining to me this morning. If vehicles are not delivered to customers, the company cannot ask them for payment. If the company does not get money into its bank accounts, we will not be able to get our salaries! I was talking to our finance director the other day and he said he was very concerned about our financial position. We do not seem to realize how important it is to deliver parts to the assembly line on time!” He would embellish his speech with more flourishes, and it would take 4 or 5 minutes sometimes.

When he finished, I would simply say, “Your problem is the missing part from department X. Let’s ask the head of department X. And, as a rule, do not waste everyone’s time by explaining so much why the problem should worry us. Let’s get on with solving it.”

The head of department X would often have the solution already. The part will be delivered in an hour. Sometimes he would admit he had a problem and say what it was. Then someone else could jump in and offer help to solve his problem. And sometimes he might even say that the part was delivered already, and the assembly manager did not know about it!

If department X said the part had already been delivered, I would turn to the assembly manager to confirm it. He would have to admit that it was his practice to ask all his direct reports before the meeting what problems he should take up at the standing meeting. He had been given the information by the superintendent of the assembly line. (He wanted a long list, was my surmise, so that he could put down others in the meeting!)

The problems of a manufacturing plant, even a very complex one as TELCO’s in Pune was, do not compare with the complexity of social and economic disruptions the Covid virus has caused. Because the Covid problem is more complex, it requires an even greater diversity of experts to solve them, and more effective problem-solving meetings. The meetings must be managed well to keep attention focused on finding solutions collaboratively, rather than repeating woes caused by the problem, pointing fingers at others, and complaining about the government’s inability to solve it. Therefore, as a rule, if the right people are not in the room to deliberate about the problem, don’t waste time discussing it.

I have made it a rule now, whenever I am invited to a meeting on Zoom (or to join WhatsApp groups), to ask what the purpose of the group is, who will be in it, and how it will conduct itself. Because if the group and its meetings are not well-designed, with participants and methods of deliberation aligned with purpose, they are a waste of everyone’s time.

When problems are more complex, as many social problems are, such as the breakdown of democracies, widespread economic insecurity, and climate change, a greater diversity of experts is required to put their heads together to find the interlinkages amongst the complex system’s constituents. However, like the manager of the TELCO assembly plant, experts in their knowledge silos want to draw more attention to their part of the system (and themselves).

Medical experts are called upon to solve the Covid problem. Their prescriptions to solve it—isolating people from others, and more jabs—are causing large socio-economic disruptions. Climate scientists, who understand the physics of climate change, draw attention to the problem of too much carbon in the atmosphere causing global warming. Therefore, they want everyone to get to ‘net zero’ as fast as possible. However, the ultimate purpose of the collaborative human enterprise must be to save all humanity, not just reduce carbon. If the solutions for reducing carbon in a hurry affect the livelihoods of people adversely, even causing premature deaths in this generation, they are not the right solutions. It is essential that other objectives of the human enterprise, listed in the Sustainable Development Goals, such as rapid reduction of poverty and inequality, and equal access to good quality education and healthcare, be pursued simultaneously. The patient should not be killed by side effects of any strong medicine prescribed by experts operating within their limited knowledge silos.  

Listening to social and climate systems

I have participated in the Tallberg Forum, convened in the little village of Tallberg in Sweden for many years. The annual Tallberg Forum was a ‘big tent’ for hundreds of civil society organizations from around the world. Civil society organizations are passionate about diverse causes—the climate, environmental degradation, poverty, inequality, human rights, etc. For a week they would meet in many groups, in small hotel rooms and tents scattered along the shores of idyllic Lake Siljan. A big tent had to be put up to accommodate all for plenary sessions.

There were no long speeches in any session; just well conducted deliberations. Every year I listened to a variety of discussions on many subjects. I took extensive notes: about the subjects being discussed, as well as about the manners in which the deliberations were conducted. I was researching ways for people to listen to others. Another frequent attendee was a publisher from the US. We became acquainted; he sat next to me often and seemed to note what I was writing in my notebook. One day he asked me to lunch and suggested I write a book about methods for democratic deliberations. My book, Discordant Democrats: Five Steps to Consensus, was published by Penguin in 2007.

The thesis of my book was the essence of democracy is deliberations amongst citizens to find solutions together for problems they are concerned about. I explained why these deliberations must happen at many levels, in Parliaments and Congresses, and most of all in local communities. Democracy is government of the people, for the people by the people. Therefore, people everywhere must learn to govern themselves cooperatively and effectively. They must learn to listen to “people not like themselves” to understand other’s perspectives and thereby understand the larger system of which they are all a part. I suggested some essential principles and some simple steps to make these deliberations effective which people could apply in their own meetings. I called them the “WMD we must proliferate”—Ways of Mass Dialogue. They can be an antidote to the other WMD—Weapons of Mass Destruction—that governments are trying so hard to keep for themselves and to deny others.

Listening to many perspectives is essential for finding solutions to make the whole system healthy, and not causing harm by focusing too much on any one big problem. This has become imperative for finding a good way out of the Covid crisis. The impact of Covid has disrupted education systems, economic systems, and other systems that are outside the scope of medical experts. It is also reducing confidence of citizens in their governments, thus creating larger systems’ governance problems.

The Tallberg Forum, since it was in Sweden, focused a good deal on the climate challenge. Pictures of polar bears on melting icebergs were backdrops to several discussions. However, many civil society organizations had other principal concerns, such as incomes of small farmers and organic agriculture. I vividly recall a Tallberg style “systems” meeting. The participants were diverse. They included some who were promoting organic, community farming, and others focused on carbon and climate change.

In a systems meeting, while each participant describes the essence of their idea briefly, others must listen to see how they could support the initiative, as well as note the unintended consequences of the initiative on what they are concerned about. Thus, all speak, and all listen and take notes. Then they are invited to share their insights about the interconnections between them and develop a rough picture of the whole system.

A collaborative of Swedish and South American NGOs presented a very inspiring story about the promotion of small farmers’ cooperatives growing organic fruits and coffee in Colombia and the marketing of these products in Scandinavia. Incomes of the farmers had gone up. Swedish consumers were also feeling noble, because they were helping poor farmers and were buying healthy organic produce, even at a higher price than other produce in their supermarkets.

A climate expert listened intently to them and pointed out that, perhaps the effect on the climate of shipping organic produce, by air, all the way from South America to Scandinavia outweighed the economic benefits for farmers. 

Another participant wondered about the process of ‘scaling up’ production in local farms in South America to meet the increasing demand in Scandinavia. Were other plant species being removed to create room for the produce in demand? What effect was this having on the local ecology? Was the dependence on the market for one product making the small farmer’s incomes vulnerable?

No answers were sought in the meeting, which was only an hour and half. The purpose of the meeting was to make the participants aware of the system in which their preferred solutions for their own passionate causes must fit. It highlighted the danger of scaling up any one solution too far and fast—like carbon reduction, or long supply chains for organic produce—without considering their impacts on the health of the whole system.

Fitting design to purpose

Meetings are convened for different purposes. A friendly meeting in a bar has a purpose too, which is not to solve any problem, or even to understand a complex problem. Many meetings on social media platforms are set up as get-togethers. It is for bonding with others. The purpose of other meetings is to provide knowledge to the participants, through talks given by experts, and discussions amongst expert panelists.

My interest is in meetings where diverse people (and experts) learn to work together to solve a problem which can be solved only by their thinking and working together more purposefully. We need many more such meetings to get ourselves out of the depression that the Covid pandemic has caused. Also, to reach the Sustainable Development Goals.

We cannot afford to wait for old times to return when we could travel to meetings. In any case that was a very slow way to solve problems that cannot wait much longer. Conference centers must be booked well in advance; dates for travel must be matched. They were expensive too. And they harmed the environment—all that carbon spewed into the atmosphere as we travel around.

We now have a wonderful opportunity to expand thoughtful deliberations on global problems, and accelerate the process of collective learning, using the internet, Zoom, and other platforms.

Let’s learn to make our groups and meetings on internet platforms more purposeful and effective. Some principles that apply to all meetings, even those in person, are:

  1. Always be clear what the purpose of the meeting is, and design it accordingly
  2. For “systems” meetings, ensure ‘requisite variety’ in the participants. They are the ingredients without which even well managed meetings cannot produce useful insights
  3. Make the purpose of the meeting clear to all the participants. The meeting is not a platform for the participants to impress others. It is a meeting to listen to and to learn with others
  4. All points of view must be heard at the outset, briefly, since time may be limited.
  5. Ensure that all participants listen while others are speaking: encourage them to take notes
  6. After the first round, ask all participants by turn for the patterns they see, and any insights that have come to their minds
  7. Conclude with a discussion about the implications of the pattern they see
  8. Brainstorm some steps to continue learning and improve collaboration.

The steps a group can take together depends on the nature of the group. It is easier for ‘intact’ groups who are parts of a formal organization to manage further steps as a group. On the other hand, if the participants belong to diverse organizations, the further steps they take must be ‘catalytic’. As individuals, and collectively, they can seed ideas emerging from their meeting into other forums. They can also spread around ways of having open-minded, and systematic, deliberations. These ways are the differences with which to make a difference to the state of the world.

For the record, almost all discussions in Tallberg were in ‘open’ groups, whereas TELCO was a closed group. All the groups that I have been listening to on Zoom and social media during the pandemic have been open groups of people who are concerned about the state of the world and/or wanting to have a social conversation to overcome their loneliness.

While the pandemic has made it difficult to have physical meetings in the ways we used to, it has given us an opportunity to widen the public conversation. These conversations can cause more harm—as “conversations” on social media are. Or they can help to heal the world and produce new systemic solutions. We must build back better, much better. Covid has given us an opportunity to do it. 

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About the author

Arun Maira
Arun Maira

Former Chairman, BCG India &

Member, Planning Commission

Former Member, Planning Commission of India
Former Chairman, Boston Consulting Group, India
Chairman, HelpAge International

Any discussion on policy, the future of India, and indeed the world, is enriched with Arun Maira’s views, and not just because he was a member of the Planning Commission of India for five years till June 2014. Arun is one of those rare people who have held leadership positions in both, the private as well as the public sector, bringing a unique perspective on how civil society, the government, and the private sector can work more closely to improve the world for everyone. He has led three rounds of participative and comprehensive scenario building for the future of India: in 1999 (with the Confederation of Indian Industry), 2005 (with the World Economic Forum), and 2011 (with the Planning Commission).

In his career spanning five decades, Arun has led several organisations, including the Boston Consulting Group in India, where he was chairman for eight years till 2008. He was also the chairman of Axis Bank Foundation and Save the Children, India. He was a board member of the India Brand Equity Foundation, the Indian Institute of Corporate Affairs, and the UN Global Compact, and WWF India.

In the early part of his career, he spent 25 years in the Tata group at various important positions. He was also a member of the Board of Tata Motors (then called TELCO). After leaving the Tatas, Arun joined Arthur D Little Inc (ADL), the international management consultancy, in the US, where he advised companies across sectors and geographies on their growth strategies and handling transformational change.

Recognising his astute understanding of both macro as well as micro policy issues, Arun has been involved in several government committees and organisations, including the National Innovation Council. He has been on the board of several companies as well as educational institutions and has chaired several national committees of the Confederation of Indian Industries.

In 2009, Arun was appointed as a member of the Planning Commission (now replaced by the NITI Aayog), which is led by the Prime Minister of India. At this minister-level position, he led the development of strategies for the country on issues relating to industrialisation and urbanisation. He also advised the Commission on its future role.

With his vast experience and expertise, Arun is indeed a thought leader. He is invited to speak at various forums and has written several books that capture his insights.

His most recent book, A Billion Fireflies: Critical Conversations to Shape a New Post-Pandemic World and Transforming Systems: Why the World Needs a New Ethical Toolkit before that, talk about how systemic problems of social inequality and environmental unsustainability are becoming intolerable. Prevalent precepts of good business management and best practices in government as well as civil society organisations are failing the needs of humanity. This calls for a whole new toolkit founded on systems thinking, ethical reasoning and deep listening. And that civil society, government and private companies need to work together to encourage a variety of local systems solutions for deep-rooted issues that impact different communities differently.

His previous books include An Upstart in Government: Journeys of Change and Learning (2016); Redesigning the Aeroplane While Flying: Reforming Institutions (2014)Remaking India: One Country, One DestinyTransforming Capitalism: Improving the World for EveryoneShaping the Future: Aspirational Leadership in India and Beyond; and Listening for Well-Being: Conversations with People Not Like Us (2017).

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