Thomas Jefferson and preparing for meetings

Here’s an interesting historical anecdote from Karl Fogel’s Producing Open Source Software on the value of preparing for meetings.

In his multi-volume biography of Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson and His Time, Dumas Malone tells the story of how Jefferson handled the first meeting held to decide the organization of the future University of Virginia. The University had been Jefferson’s idea in the first place, but (as is the case everywhere, not just in open source projects) many other parties had climbed on board quickly, each with their own interests and agendas.

When they gathered at that first meeting to hash things out, Jefferson made sure to show up with meticulously prepared architectural drawings, detailed budgets for construction and operation, a proposed curriculum, and the names of specific faculty he wanted to import from Europe. No one else in the room was even remotely as prepared; the group essentially had to capitulate to Jefferson’s vision, and the University was eventually founded more or less in accordance with his plans.

The facts that construction went far over budget, and that many of his ideas did not, for various reasons, work out in the end, were all things Jefferson probably knew perfectly well would happen. His purpose was strategic: to show up at the meeting with something so substantive that everyone else would have to fall into the role of simply proposing modifications to it, so that the overall shape, and therefore schedule, of the project would be roughly as he wanted.

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14 comments on “Thomas Jefferson and preparing for meetings
  1. Jason says:

    That works. I remember going into an initial meeting with a not-very-productive manager on the design of an application with a complete spec already assembled with one of her very able subordinates. Not only did it get approved, it saved me weeks of meetings with a most tiresome person!

  2. John V. says:

    Yep, just like the strategy of picking the nominees to rig an otherwise free election.

  3. Another piece of advice I got when I was at Bell Labs was to always include a strawman proposal so that management got to feel like they were doing something by rejecting a proposal.

  4. John says:

    Bob: A variation on the strawman proposal is to include a glaring typo. :)

  5. Luis says:

    Another variation: put a controversial item (but that you don’t care about) at the front of the proposal. People will get tired discussing the first point and will go really quickly over the rest, very likely approving it.

  6. Madison tried the same strategy at the Constitutional Convention, and it… didn’t work.

  7. Isaac says:

    In the design world, Luis’ strategy is often called a “blue boat”. If you add a glaringly ugly component, the client will be fixated on removing that and leave the rest intact.

    There is, of course, the risk that they will love the blue boat and you’ll be stuck with it…

  8. Eric Stern says:

    Being prepared does go a long way, but one thing I find is that having access to a computer that is hooked up to the internet and a projector or even just an ipad can be be useful at creating a customized proposal on the spot.

    Just using the 9 different pages on the safari browser, preloaded, can be enough. Preparation for an individual meeting can only go so far, actually knowing what is going on in your field and what kind of solutions exist is enough.

  9. dgg32 says:

    Same feelings here. This is an efficient way to manipulate the crowd in a meeting. Showing the boss a lot of results with tons of details will eventually overwhelm him and he is too overloaded to ask questions, let alone to cast doubt upon the validity of my work.

  10. Konerak says:

    This is also why some people use the sneaky technique of not informing the other meeting attendants what the meeting will be about, or try to add points to the meeting agenda.

    There are companies that have installed the obligation to announce the meeting agenda beforehand, and not digress from it, just to give everyone the chance to prepare.

  11. Linker3000 says:

    Yeah, and then there’s my old boss – you’ walk into a meeting having spoken at length to potential suppliers, armed with your weighted features evaluation, supplier quotes, technical appraisal of the bids and he’s just say ‘I’ve given the work to someone my friend knows who says he’s very good at this kind of stuff”.

  12. David says:

    Lots of the comments are tinged with just a bit of cynicism in that they view this type of preparation as a self-consciously implemented ‘technique’ or ‘strategy’ for getting one’s way. While it can surely be just that, I would imagine just as often the person who ‘out-prepares’ everyone else has done so as a result of their having some extreme interest/obsession with the subject.

    I would even bet that there are very practical consequences to whether the over preparation is self-consciously implemented as a technique for getting one’s way versus its being a result of one’s obsession with the subject. For instance, perhaps the obsession-driven design is more likely to be seen through to completion (and according to the specs) by the obsessed designer.

  13. John says:

    David: I saw this quote more like the way you mentioned. If one person is far better prepared than others, he’s likely to “win,” and most likely deserves to win. He has the passion, he has given the subject the most thought, etc. In the context of Fogel’s book, he’s talking about taking the initiative on an open source project as a way of keeping the project on track. Here’s the text immediately following the part I quote.

    In the case of a free software project, there is no single “meeting”, but instead a series of small proposals made mostly by means of the issue tracker. But if you have some credibility in the project to start with, and you start assigning various features, enhancements, and bugs to target releases in the issue tracker, according to some announced overall plan, people will mostly go along with you. Once you’ve got things laid out more or less as you want them, the conversations about actual release dates will go much more smoothly. It is crucial, of course, to never present any individual decision as written in stone. …

  14. John V. says:

    Well, OK, perhaps being willing and able to railroad the agenda correlates to a degree with other qualities which are positive — ruthlessness in the face of competition, etc.

    But isn’t this like saying that the guy with the biggest megaphone should be your spokesman because he is loudest?

    I guess one person’s ruthless pursuit of power is another person’s passionate desire (and therefore merit) to lead. Sometimes the trains do run on time, but other times the backyard steel furnaces don’t even make decent pig iron.

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