Bored? Lonely? Nothing to do? Just call a meeting!
That was the headline on the poster. “Bored? Lonely? Nothing to do?”
It was easily legible from a good 10 metres. The copy however, was comparatively tiny and demanded much closer scrutiny. “Well, no problem,” it continued, “just call a meeting! You’ll get to sit around with your mates, get coffee and biscuits brought to you, and discuss nothing of any consequence. Best of all, you don’t have to do any real work and before you know it, it’ll be time to head down to the pub.”
This poster mysteriously appeared in an agency’s reception area where I worked some years ago. Needless to say, it didn’t survive very long, but not before pretty much everyone had seen it.
It was both very funny and very true. This simple protest at the inordinate amount of time we all seem to spend ‘in a meeting’ is one with which I still have to agree. Did it change anything? Of course not, but it did succeed in highlighting the issue.
Meetings can be the archenemy of productivity, the veritable ‘bottleneck of business’. To borrow from a bumper sticker, ‘meetings are for people who don’t have to do the work’. Or most meetings are anyway.
The ‘meeting malaise’ starts long before the meeting itself of course, with the difficulty with which meeting are scheduled. This is a long, protracted and dull affair in itself, which should send a rather ominous warning signal. Coordinating a number of diaries must be one of the most arduous corporate tasks imaginable. Everyone is too busy, or pretends to be. Everyone has more important commitments to consider, or likes to think so. And everyone has better things to do with their time, and indeed probably does. So often just scheduling the meeting requires a mini-meeting in itself.
Then there’s the invasive technology that is Outlook or iCal whereby everyone else has immediate access to your diary and apparent availability. Any blank space is quickly populated with meetings before you even know it. You vainly attempt to block certain slots in order to defend some time for yourself, only to get the inevitable ‘it’s the only time I can get everyone else together’ call.
Then, guess what, you’re ‘in a meeting’.
But not all meetings are alike. They can be many and various. So here are but a few of the less productive meeting types that might seem all too familiar.
The Stuttering Start
First, there’s the ‘Stuttering Start’. This is the (usually internal) meeting scheduled to start at, say, 10am in the boardroom. Diligent soul that you are, you arrive a minute or so early only to find the room completely empty. You have a seat and begin to wonder if there’ll be any interesting catering. Still no one appears. So you leave your pad and pen in your place – a powerful indicator of presence, after all – and leave to return to your desk. You return to the boardroom some minutes later only to find other pads and assorted pens, but still no people. Eventually they start to drift in, slowly. But there’s still the inevitable delay for that person who considers himself or herself to be important enough to keep everyone else waiting. “Sorry guys, I was caught up doing X”. Doing something much more important than you lot, being the underlying implication. The meeting begins. 10:19am.
Then what about the ‘Workshop’? This is really a euphemism for ‘extra-long meeting’. Usually an all day and off-site affair, these always start off with the best intentions. ‘To generate alternative scenario plans for market share growth in category X’, or something similar. They are often held in desirable locations such as venues with ocean views, country retreats or flash inner city hotels. And they invariably bring together a large and diverse group of strangers united in some common pursuit. The better ones are quite fun, well run and seemingly productive if the number of pages of butcher’s paper is anything to go by. And best of all, you get home much earlier than usual. But all too often ‘the workshop’ is a complete and utter waste of time. But that realisation really only dawns on you well after the event or if at all and therein lies their genius. What did you actually generate? What did you change as a result? And what are you doing any differently now? Consider the last workshop you attended and then ask yourself these rather revealing questions.
The Final Presentation
How about the ‘Final Presentation’? This is the ‘project fee justification’ presentation that marks the culmination of a long and expensive project outsourced to a research agency, management consultancy, or ‘ideas business’ (whatever that might be). These are normally scheduled for about three hours, because inevitably, ‘there’s an awful lot to get through’. Just before it starts you find yourself madly attempting to spot the number of PowerPoint or Keynote slides you are about to endure in the bottom corner of the screen, in that moment before the presenter hits ‘Play Slide Show’. To your horror it reads “1 of 127”. And so it begins. All ‘background’, ‘worldwide information trawls’ and ‘best practice methodology’, before anything even remotely new or enlightening. Inevitably it’s a long presentation. And it has to be. Someone paid a lot of money for it.
Lastly, there’s the ‘Cockroach’. The meeting that just will not end. No matter what you try to kill it. The one you need to get out of in order to do the work that has been talked about. The one you need to leave to get to guess what, the next meeting. The one in which everything has been covered and just when you think the last word has been spoken, somebody has something else to add. You try the old, “Great, thanks everyone”, trying desperately to bring it to a speedy conclusion, but to no avail. There’s another comment, another thought, another opinion. The cockroach just doesn’t die.
But the whole ‘in a meeting’ thing isn’t all bad news. Never has there been an easier and more polite way to let someone know that you don’t want to talk to him or her, either in person or on the phone. ‘In a meeting’ has come to serve as the ultimate get-out clause; one that for some inexplicable reason requires no further explanation at all.
So next time you’re bored, lonely and have nothing to do, do whatever you have to do, but please just don’t actually call a meeting. Just don’t do it.