The desire to have better meetings is currently all the rage.
How do you start a key meeting? One where a decision must be made.
Here’s a terrific paragraph from a recent book review. (A Tale of Two Tyrants, subscription req’d);
Deeply suspicious of anyone who was ambitious or talented, Stalin would conduct personal meetings where he made a brief statement before “aggressively listening” to what people had to say and watching how they said it.
On October 19 1941, for example, high-ranking members of the Soviet leadership, including the much-feared head of the NKVD, Lavrentiy Beria, had planned to convince Stalin to abandon Moscow in the face of quickly advancing German troops.
Stalin, however, had already made up his mind and simply asked the assembled group: “Are we going to defend Moscow?”
According to V S Pronin, president of the Moscow Soviet, everyone, including Beria, instantly fell in line and answered with faint enthusiasm: “We will defend Moscow!”
Like China today, Russia before it held humanity back with such choking chains.
On balance, with the awkward lens of hindsight, how should we judge that this particular meeting eighty years ago went the way it did?
It can be incredible to think that opportunity for change can often hinge on a single sentence in a sole meeting.
A fact that this particular mass murderer appears to have revelled in.
Mind games a forte.
When I read this, the sheer politics of the framing was astonishing.
Alternatives flashed across my mind.
The most obvious perhaps, ‘shall we fight the Germans?’, ‘should we retreat and regroup?’ or ‘is it time to make a deal?’
Obviously none the desired ‘frame’.
Then how about a different response from one of the inner sanctum?
Could secret police chief Beria have rather answered; ‘we will defend you, Joe’.
Would that have changed the angle of debate (and march of history)? Or hasten his execution by twelve years?
And other such counter-factual fantasies.
In reality, unforeseeable and remarkable chain of events spared Moscow. Or put another way, saw off the Germans.
But the legend was set.
A (brutal) reminder that the question posed at meeting outset to determine purpose can have any number of variants.
How you craft it can have significant influence on subsequent debate direction.
You may well face vastly more divergent opinion than a communist dictator (thankfully) but how you get discussion rolling is in your hands.