The Day Meetings Swallowed the Earth

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Does it ever seem to you that you go to work just to go to meetings and not to actually work? Yeah, the line forms to the right, pal. But is it really that way, or is it all in your head?

Raise your hand if you feel that you just aren’t involved in enough meetings in your work life. Hmmm, just as I thought, only a few hands raised. And I really think most of them are confused and actually want to leave the room for a few minutes.

Unless you’re working in a monastery, copying ancient manuscripts so that when the Vikings (no offense to Vikings, they are a swell bunch of fellas, and not to indicate that Vikings are only men, there are women Vikings too) come pillaging again, we won’t lose the last copy of Richard Castle’s latest book, you probably attend more than your share of meetings in a given work day.

We’re Collaborating. Hurray!

We all know where this whole collaboration push has come from (blame Silicon Valley billionaires and people who write articles), but everyone has sure bought in. Individual offices and even cubicles have disappeared from most offices so that we can just be constantly collaborating.

Not that there’s something wrong with collaborating. Done properly it is probably one of the best ways to cross-pollinate our ideas and to run them up the flag pole to see if anyone declares war.

But being collaborative is not the same as being “meeting bound.” And unfortunately, one of the most important ways in which companies today seek to be collaborative is to have a ton of meetings involving everyone they can find.

I personally am not sure that I agree with this perspective. Most meetings have more to do with a committee structure than they do with collaboration, and sometimes the output of a committee is quite sub-optimal.

We Have to Be in the Know

One of the most important reasons that meetings have begun to run wild is the need to “keep everyone in the loop.”

Part of this is nice, a sincere effort to make sure that everyone has the visibility they need to know where the company/project/whatever is going and how it’s doing.

Unfortunately, and pardon me if you feel I am overly cynical, the corporate/organization environment is sometimes a life-size “blame game.” If a project is successful, then the credit generally goes to the people at the top. And I mean the real credit: promotions, bonuses, that sort of thing. And if the project does not go well, then the hunt for responsible parties begins. Oh, we disguise it as “making sure this doesn’t happen again,” but for the most part we are looking for victims.

That sounds like a mean-spirited, vigilante process, and I don’t mean it that way at all, but the truth is, if things go south, the organization will look to see who dropped the ball. So from both directions, above and below, people are drawn to meetings because no one wants to be left out of the “decision chain.”

That is, from above, managers tend toward inviting everyone they can think of because they don’t want to be the manager who forgot to involve the infrastructure architecture security team. And, from the bottom, when line people hear of an initiative, they will not run from a chance to be part of it because who knows what their involvement might be.

The result is we all have lots of meetings that chew up our time. But they do more than take up time.

The Real Downside of Meeting Mania

Of course, the obvious thing we think of when we look at the downside of meetings is the lost time. Let’s face it, if you spend six of your eight hours in meetings, that doesn’t leave much time for anything else. Or maybe it doesn’t really matter. After all, when you’re in a meeting, aren’t you really working?

I don’t know. You tell me. Honestly, what are most of us doing frantically while the meeting is going on? Why email, of course. We’re checking it, reading it, replying to it, sending it, and checking our fantasy teams. So, that’s working, right?

That’s actually an excellent question. When we’re doing email, are we working? Or are we just responding to someone else’s needs? If emailing is working, then why do so many business efficiency and “habits of highly well-paid people” advise us to turn off email except for a couple of times during the day?

For the purposes of this article, I am going to say that emailing is not working, at least not working with a capital “W.” It is mini work for the most part, housekeeping kinds of things. It is our way of staying in the loop and being proactive without being truly proactive.

Part of the reason for that is the way most of us handle our email. That is, multiple times. A visual representation of most people’s inbox would look like the kind of messy desk that is no longer allowed at most offices. But that is another article for another day.

The bottom line is, unless this is your meeting, organized and called for by you, chances are any time spent on it will just be deducted from the time you have in the day to do your real job, the one that is going to make your mark in the organization.

Lost Concentration

One of the most dangerous meeting scenarios, in terms of your productivity, are serial meetings separated by discrete time intervals. For example, maybe you have a meeting from 9-10. Then another from 11-12. Theoretically, you should be able to use the time from 10-11 to do your own work. Will you?

I don’t have any hard facts, but my observations are…no, you probably won’t. You might mean to, but chances are it will take 15 minutes or so after the meeting and the inevitable after-meeting conversations to get back to your work space and get back on track with something different. And then you will have one eye on the clock because you know you have a meeting coming up in just few.

I could be wrong, but I’ve got a better than even feeling that you will end up frittering away that hour. You might do some small tasks, some relatively unimportant ones, but it is unlikely that you will tackle something of great importance. And it is those great-importance things that are, or should be, the reason you are at work.

Better Decisions?

But we make better decisions in meetings, don’t we? I mean a dozen heads are better than one, right? It’s the synergy of people working together that helps bring things home.

I have to admit, I did Google this to see what was out there, but it was mostly junk about how to have good meetings. To my mind, that’s sort of like saying “how to have a nice murder,” but I have spent a lot of time in meetings, especially over the past two years, and I may be just a bit jaded.

In the end, I don’t know the answer to this. I think about most of the meetings I have been in over the last few years, and the key thing I zero in on is eye contact. How many of the people in the meeting that I am running (and my meetings are pretty good; I do have a bit of a sense of humor and a rye outlook on things, don’t you know) actually establish eye contact? Those that don’t are doing email. And I have to ask you, when you are doing email, how much attention are you paying to the meeting? And if you are not paying attention to the meeting, how useful are your comments and thoughts?

In the end, if 10 people are invited to a meeting, a video would clearly show that only three of them were required: the leader and the two people who actually know something.

So?

Can you imagine a company without meetings?

No, I mean can you imagine when you are sober, a company without meetings? Yeah, that’s what I thought. Somehow, there has to be collaboration. The question is, how can we do that without doing meetings the way most people do them? And that topic will have to wait until next month. But this was fun, wasn’t it? Nothing like meeting bashing to bring in a crowd.

 

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