Wednesday, April 04, 2007


We had a meeting today at work. This should come as no surprise - unless you're one of the folks who actually makes something for a living, you probably spend a lot of time at work in meetings, too. And, like most meeting attendees, I hate meetings. Most meetings aren't really that productive, or get monopolized by a few people that waste everyone else's time, or worse still just spawn more meetings. The meeting spawn are the worst. We say "let's take that issue offline" and then hold a "splinter session." Splinter - it always makes me think of sailing ship battles, where the cannonballs would smash the wooden bulkheads, and the splinters would fly like shrapnel, causing more harm than the ball itself.

But as I said, I am already predisposed to dislike meetings. I once was selected and directed for special training in Meeting Facilitation, and it was great. Basically, they said

  • Have an Agenda
  • Control who is talking
  • Keep it under 30 minutes

That right there will put you a long way towards having a good meeting. On the program I'm working right now we break all those rules, all the time.

This particular meeting was interesting, because it highlights something I always enjoy. The perversion of language. That is to say, when we play games with language to avoid unpleasant consequences or get what we want. Bear with me while I explain what happened.

The meeting, which was scheduled some time ago, was a "90% Milestone Review." This means it was a session to review technical issues when a particular portion of the project was 90% complete. This particular portion or zone was unusual, in that we are only having one milestone review - most zones have 3, at 50%, 70%, and 90%. This is because this particular zone is very plain, with very little to design and review.

When we (the Government and it's representatives) received the design, we began our review and quickly concluded the design was not 90% complete. The exact phrase is it did "not meet the 90% Entrance Criteria." Fair enough. But, because of bureaucratic momentum, we still held the "90% Milestone Review," even though ALL parties, Government, designer, contractor, etc., agree that it is not 90% ready. This is where the language issue comes up.

If we call the meeting a "90% Zone Design Review" and review this design we have in our hands, we have to fail the design. That gets reported up to the Big Boss, and is a Bad Metric. Bad Metrics eventually get projects canceled. So, we're in a bind - we've got too much momentum to cancel the meeting, but if we hold the meeting it hurts the program. The solution? We rename the meeting. The 90% Milestone Review became a Government Comment Review Session. That way there's no report, no bad metrics, just a schedule slip as the "real" 90% meeting "slips to the right" to a date to be determined. That is a bad metric, too, but it is easier to hide in the recent tide of schedule slips.

This is just my personal example of the perversions of language. "Tax increase" vs. "expiring tax cuts" and "estate tax" vs. "death tax" are two famous examples. My friend Chris in Japan told me another, more grisly euphemism, "human accident" for suicide-by-subway in Tokyo. Euphemisms, misdirection, obfuscation... all just games with language. Kind of fun, if you can step back from it. I'm still too close, I think - I still have to set up and run the "real" meeting in a few weeks, probably. It will be funnier after that.

No comments: