There has been widespread concern about the effectiveness of office meetings from even before the pandemic. Now, with the same moved to screens, people are even more weary. Barring a few organisations such as Amazon which insists on a pre-circulated note to improve the effectiveness of meetings, most firms struggle with this issue. In this piece, James Surowiecki, the author of the book “The Wisdom of Crowds”, shows how even in literary works of fiction, meetings are ineffective. He uses five famous works of literature to entertainingly draw some important lessons on leadership and organisational decision making.
“On any given weekday some 50m meetings are held in American workplaces alone. The average executive now spends 23 hours in them each week, a figure that has more than doubled since the 1960s. The number of meetings proliferated in the 1980s as Western economies moved away from manufacturing towards “knowledge” industries that seemed to require a lot of talking….Surveys suggest we consider at least half the ones we attend to be ineffective – the same bores drone on, the people with something useful to say don’t speak and nothing of importance gets decided. In many office cultures, a meeting is a byword for a tedious, time-wasting exercise.”
First, he cites a scene from The Illiad by Homer to show why meetings are futile if dissent is not tolerated:
“…the assembled Greeks are once again holding a discussion on what to do about their stalemate (in fact Agamemnon has already resolved to have another crack at the walls of Troy). A commoner, Thersites, speaks up to make the case for cutting their losses: their ships are rotting, they already have plenty of loot and Agamemnon has already proved to be a poor leader. Isn’t it time to head home?
Odysseus, a high-ranking commander, orders Thersites to check his “glib tongue” and then beats him up for “playing the fool” and daring to “argue with princes”; the crowd delights at Thersites’s humiliation.
By inviting us to watch a reasonable argument dismissed with violence, Homer makes clear that the Greeks did not believe in a frank exchange of views. The meeting was a large one, but common folk were there to legitimise decisions already taken by their superiors. Such assemblies were clearly as frustratingly common in Homer’s time as they are in ours.
Encouraging junior staff to voice their opinions is one of the biggest difficulties modern managers face. Many, like Homer’s warlords, shut them down – truly open meetings are a nightmare to run. But getting the view from the floor isn’t just good for employees’ morale; it’s a way to gather useful information and different opinions. Any organisation that shuts down its Thersites is losing valuable insights”
Whilst he cites three other works from which we could learn how not to run meetings, the one where he shares a positive takeaway is ironically a meeting run by Satan in Paradise Lost.
At the start of “Paradise Lost” Satan and his army of fallen angels convene,..,to work out how to turn their fortunes around. Satan has just led the infernal rabble in a spectacularly botched rebellion in Heaven and now they’re literally stuck in Hell.
Unlike Agamemnon, Satan seems genuinely keen to come up with a strategy that everyone supports…
When Satan opens the floor to debate, four arch-demons make their case. Moloch advocates “open Warr”. Belial, whom Milton describes as an artful and cynical speaker, suggests that they do nothing and hope God sees fit to forgive them. Mammon argues for abandoning any idea of returning to Heaven and instead building an empire in Hell. And Beelzebub counsels sending a demon to Earth to seduce or destroy this “new Race call’d Man”. The issue is put to a vote.
This emphasis on collective decision making characterised many literary meetings after Homer. Influenced by the ideals of Athenian democracy, playwrights such as Aesychlus and Euripides depicted meetings in which the outcome was decided by the mood in the room, not the most senior person there. The result wasn’t always the right one, but the procedure was represented as admirable.
In Hell, the diabolical assembly chose to precipitate the fall of Man – which turns out to be the option Satan was most in favour of all along. Some scholars have suggested that Satan manipulated the vote. But perhaps they don’t want to acknowledge that, in getting people to vote for his preferred outcome, Satan was simply really good at meetings.
Management by plebiscite is not, of course, a viable option for most companies. But Satan knew what he was doing. It’s a good idea to ask everyone in the room to register their opinion at the end of the session, even if you don’t have a yes-no question – you can ask people how likely they think an outcome is, or to rank the various options presented. As well as giving people a sense that their voice matters, consulting a wider group gives leaders access to a collective judgment that – as a large body of literature on the wisdom of crowds shows – is likely to be a good one.”

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