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Hitchhikers guide to Better Meetings

Posted by Andrew 9 August 2010

Ever experienced or participated in a meeting which you felt could have been better?

With the story of our name being partly inspired by a reference to Douglas Adam’s Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, I thought it could be a bit of fun to take a look at three phrases that are found within and see how they might provide some insight into facilitating better meetings. After all, not unlike a group facilitator, being a galactic hitchhiker will see you needing to be crafty, resourceful, nimble and travelling light!

The Answer’s 42

In the first novel and radio series, a group of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings demand to learn the Ultimate Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything from the supercomputer, Deep Thought, specially built for this purpose. It takes Deep Thought 7½ million years to compute and check the answer, which turns out to be 42. Unfortunately, The Ultimate Question itself is unknown.
How often have you been in a meeting where people are focussing on jumping to answers, regardless of what the problem or question actually is? It’s interesting to notice how quickly people sometimes want to jump into action, but at the cost of not laying the groundwork for what’s needed in making these actions sustainable. Like, for instance, building relationships.
Thinking there’s one right answer and it’s 42 is a whole other problem for meetings. This manifests itself by way of pre-determined outcomes and an inability to accept emergent outcomes. For a tool to help you through this one go here 
This leads us naturally on to the next principle.


In the series, DON’T PANIC (always upper-case) is a phrase written on the cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.The novel explains that this was partly because the device “looked insanely complicated” to operate, and partly to keep intergalactic travelers from panicking. It is said that despite its many glaring (and occasionally fatal) inaccuracies, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy itself has outsold the Encyclopedia Galactica because it is slightly cheaper, and because it has the words “Don’t Panic” in large, friendly letters on the cover. Arthur C. Clarke said Douglas Adams’ use of “don’t panic” was perhaps the best advice that could be given to humanity.
I remember a session ran at the Australian facilitators conference several years ago which was titled “Don’t freak out – Doing your best facilitation”. With the wisdom of moving beyond the answer’s 42 comes the hair raising truth of getting to know all about emergent outcomes first hand. Not to mention experiencing the emotions and reactions of groups working their way through the four rooms of change
It’s deceptively simple, but “don’t panic” means breathe……. In…….. Out………

Knowing where one’s towel is

Somebody who can stay in control of virtually any situation is somebody who is said to know where his or her towel is. The logic behind this statement is presented in chapter 3 of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy thus:

“….a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: nonhitchhiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, washcloth, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet-weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker might accidentally have “lost”. What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with. ”

Personally, I think knowing where one’s towel is, as a group facilitator, is about knowing what the purpose is for bringing the group together. Understanding at a deep level what the meeting is really about. All the other things (processes, flipcharts, marker pens and sticky dots) can be like the toothbrush, washcloth, soap and biscuits. But to understand the purpose and what is bringing the group together will, like the towel, provide immense psychological value. Further helping you with the previous principle “Don’t panic”.
Bringing it all together. Here are some questions to reflect on:
How have you seen the Answer’s 42 manifest in meetings you’ve been part of? How can noticing more help?
What are your Panic buttons? In what scenario’s or interactions would it be helpful for you to have your own sign “Don’t Panic” ready and available?
Reflecting on your own experience of working with groups, how often have you lost or misplaced your towel? Or maybe never had it to begin with?

What stands out most for you?

4 Responses to “Hitchhikers guide to Better Meetings”

  1. Johnnie Moore Says:

    Andrew, this post is a work of genius.

  2. Viv McWaters Says:

    What Johnnie said

  3. Andrew Says:

    Thanks Johnnie!

    Thanks to having a few great Genius’s around… I reckon your saying “Notice more and change less” is something really worth working on!

    Warm regards,

  4. Todd Montgomery Says:

    Thanks for remembering my workshop, “Don’t Freak Out!! Doing your best facilitation” from the IAF conference. I had initially had some doubts about the title but as you’ve beautifully described, it captures some essential truths about the nature of facilitation and achieving great outcomes with groups.
    Keep up the great work,