I am not a fan of chocolate, but an occasional handful of M&Ms is fun. But now contemplate the combination of “Managers & Meetings.” How many of you think that’s fun, tasty, and leaves you wanting more? Even managers themselves often lament the number of meetings they have to attend, with a typical response, “Well … I guess it’s a necessary evil.” The non-managers are usually powerless to eliminate meetings. So it is up to the managers. The problem is that their bar for “necessary” meetings may be too low. Meetings should be the last resort to get all involved in a room to hash out details, bugs, or whatever to get things done. Even brainstorming is an oversold concept whose effectiveness is suspect at best. Sadly, in today’s organizations, meetings have too often become the default.
According to Jason Fried, of 37signals in Chicago (TED Radio Hour, link below), “Meetings are just toxic, terrible, poisonous things during the day at work.” Overkill? Not to those who can’t seem to find even one whole hour during a day in which to think and to actually produce some results. How many people doing desk jobs would claim that their most productive time and place for work are in the office? So, why do people compete for that prestigious corner office? It’s for “meetings” to impress others. The biggest enemy to getting work done is fragmentation of the workday, and meetings occupy a prominent role in fracturing people’s precious time at work.
When I taught a large undergraduate core course at Wharton, the half dozen instructors had a cadre of paid undergraduate teaching assistants (TAs) who managed the small breakout groups. These TAs were the lifeline for us instructors; they were diligent, stayed on top of the class progress, and anticipated many glitches. One of my colleagues semi-joked, “We [the instructors] are really the speed bumps for the TAs.” Thank goodness, most of the instructors accepted the wisdom within his joke and we tried to stay out of the TAs’ managing skills while remaining supportive. Occasionally, I felt as if I didn’t “do” enough, but fortunately, I had too much else to do to feel bad for long. I was more than happy to let my TAs “lead.”
I wonder how many managers feel the need to do “something” just so that they look engaged and important?
In one of my jobs at a big organization, we had to do a “pre-planning” planning meeting. When I first heard of it, I thought my manager was being humorous. How wrong I was! That “pre-planning” meeting took a whole day, not including the preparation for it. And by the way, it didn’t make the actual planning meeting go much smoother.
This particular TED Hour was about collaboration, so the host of the program wondered if meetings were indeed able to facilitate collaborations. Some meetings, a few, are good for genuine collaborations, but face-to-face meetings are not necessary for all collaboration. One example the host mentioned was Wikipedia where most authors contributing to the site do not need to be physically under the same space. In fact, imagine having all the Wikipedia authors be housed together!
Mr. Fried’s suggestions regarding overabundant meetings are:
- Simply cancel a meeting or two…truly cancel it, not just move it to a different time.
- Have a no-meeting day, say, every Thursday, or even a no-meeting half-day once a week.
Mr. Fried’s ideas are not unlike the “FedEx Day, (link below)” where employees are given some “free” time to explore any ideas related to work. “Free” time. What a concept! How did we get into the current mad-dash situation that so epitomizes today’s organizations? Answers to this warrant several dissertations, but please share your thoughts anyway.
Are there meetings within your power to nix? Till next time we “meet,”
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.