Just a minute: without notes, meetings are wasted hot air

PencilAndDrum

TES column 28 November 2014

No band is better than its drummer, goes an old saying among rock n’ rollers.  It reflects the vital underpinning that the rhythm section provides any musical ensemble, even if its members are the musicians whose names most fans never learn. If the beat isn’t rock steady, the most flamboyant frontman won’t prosper.

On any committee it is the minute taker whose quiet contribution is the foundation of effectiveness.  School governors might challenge with their questions, demonstrate insightfulness in their analysis and orate with the eloquence of Cicero.  Their hot air will remain just that, if it is not ordered, edited and typed up by the clerk.  It is never just a minute – it is the only enduring product of a gathering.

Of course, technically, the minutes are ‘the property of a meeting’.  Early items on every agenda give participants the opportunity to redraft and redact.  In reality though, even if history’s first draft is mauled when presented for consideration, it remains the raw material from which any revision is confected.  The vast majority of minutes good, bad and everything between, are approved uncorrected.

Good minute takers appear in many guises.  One I worked with prepared the minutes before the meeting took place. She would then ‘correct’ her account of proceedings to take account of any points where actual decisions deviated from those that she had anticipated when preparing the agenda.  There was a ruthless brilliance to her technique, but when other governors cottoned on they were left wondering whether there was much point to their participation.

Another had brilliant shorthand.  Our deliberations were recorded with a thoroughness that Hansard’s stenographers struggle to achieve – although finding actual decisions in the elegantly rendered verbiage was always a challenge.

The best minute takers understand the multiple roles that minutes perform.  A meeting’s participants need at least some sense of what actually took place when they met.  Decisions and actions must be clearly signalled.  The record must be sufficient to reassure the public and external agencies that a body is discharging its responsibilities appropriately.  And decisions must be legally defensible.  Lawyers considering a disputed contract or a contested redundancy will always start trying to build their case with the relevant minutes.

Find a minute taker who can do all of that, and then treasurer them – they can rescue a badly chaired meeting far more effectively than a chair can rescue poor minutes.

Every rule has its exceptions, of course.  When asked if Ringo Starr was the best drummer in the world, John Lennon famously quipped ‘he isn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles’.  He was right about Starr’s limitations, and their consequences for the his band.  There are quite a few Beatles recordings, particularly on their later albums, when Paul McCartney occupied the drummer’s stool.

The same applies to a meeting with a second-rate minute taker.  The only way it can become effective is for the chair themselves to take over primary responsibility for writing up proceedings.  To paraphrase something Ringo once very nearly sang – you can get by with a little help from your friends, but its much better to have the right person for the job in the first place.

Photograph © Tim Dawson