How a renowned 'troubleshooter' held the secret to mastering tough meetings

Every manager should know about John Harvey-Jones’ ‘rule of three’ approach to confrontation.

By Des Peelo Chartered Accountant

WHEN IT COMES to meetings, the advice of Sir John Harvey-Jones is worth heeding – particularly if a serious dispute is involved.

Harvey-Jones was a renowned UK businessman in the 1980s and 1990s. His best-selling management book, Making it Happen – Reflections on Leadership, preceded a successful series on BBC television called Troubleshooter.

He became the executive chair of an ailing Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), then the largest company in the UK and Europe, now long split into different entities. I met with Harvey-Jones on a number of occasions.

An interesting comment he made was that not long after he took over at ICI, he was talking to a shop floor worker in one of its paint factories.

The worker made a useful observation. Harvey-Jones followed it up, leading to a curiosity as to how many management layers existed between the worker and the executive chair. There were 11; Harvey-Jones rescued ICI by reducing the number of layers to six.

Internal company meetings

Harvey-Jones’ advice was pragmatic and he was a master of using wit to make things happen.

Layers of company management created its own bureaucracy of meetings. It also meant turf battles as to who was responsible for what and created a temptation to push a decision up or down the ladder, rather than make a decision at all.

His general mantra was that there were too many meetings and/or too many people at them. One of his witticisms was that if you wanted to know the length of a meeting, allow 20 minutes for every person present – and if the chairperson is a ditherer, make that 30 minutes.

In the ordinary way, the purpose of internal company meetings is a mix of disseminating information and, more importantly, making decisions.

Stating the obvious, management’s job is to manage and a meeting is only necessary when the matter requires the input and/or approval of others. Management time is expensive and meetings are disruptive.

The temptation is to set regular meetings. These often become talking shops and, in many cases, repetitive. For example, there is only so much comment that can be made on a routine set of financial figures of one kind or another. An assessment as to the usefulness or otherwise of regular meetings does not go amiss.

The rule of three

Meetings that are specific to difficult circumstances are different. Here, Harvey-Jones reminded me of the ‘rule of three’.

This relates to managing the trajectory of meetings in strained or confrontational circumstances, such as a serious dispute of some kind, a matter gone badly wrong, strong disagreement on policy direction, and so on.

Harvey-Jones said to recognise that it will take three meetings to achieve resolution and one should effectively manage the trajectory on that basis.

The first meeting is grief all round from the opposing or factional parties.

Position-taking, allegations, half-baked facts, egos out of joint and nobody listening except to themselves – the meeting goes nowhere but, most importantly, a smart operator ensures that a further meeting is scheduled before breaking up.

The second meeting will likely be the grief expressed all over again, but this time the participants have largely run their course and the repetition has little impact. There will usually be some prepared rebuttals or clarifications following the first meeting. The validity or otherwise of competing positions will likely be better understood.

Some tentative steps or overtures, dressed up as trying to understand a rival position or viewpoint, may emerge as everyone knows that the repetitively expressed grief is going nowhere. Again, a smart operator ensures that a further meeting – the third meeting – is scheduled.

The third meeting gets there. The facts and positions are known, strengths and weaknesses exposed, all have had their repeated say. People want out of the room. The meeting makes real progress if at least one of the participants, or maybe a mediator or chairperson, circulates written outline proposals.

All at the third meeting, probably with a sense of relief, start looking at the proposals paper as an accepted focus. Disagreement on any aspect therein necessitates putting forward an alternative proposal and possible resolution gathers pace.

Maintain momentum

Harvey-Jones’ point was that if parties break up in disarray, it takes a long time to assemble everybody all over again. Momentum is lost, the underlying difficulties may worsen and individuals become entrenched.

Do not leave a contentious meeting without scheduling another. This too can work in resolving legal-related disputes.

Des Peelo is author of The Valuation of Businesses and Shares, 2nd edition, published by Chartered Accountants Ireland.

A version of this column first appeared on CharteredAccountants.ie.

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