“People who enjoy meetings should not be in charge of anything” – Thomas Sowell Economist
“If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings.'” – Dave Barry Author
My pet hate in a meeting is people who attend “just in case”. The work equivalent of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). “I must attend this meeting because it might be important”, but I don’t engage unless something is addressed to me.
The result is update based meetings with lots of people sat around a table with their laptops open, not listening or talking, but being physically present. It’s demoralizing for a presenter, slows everything down as nobody concentrates enough to make decisions, and creates a time suck for all involved.
What’s more, it’s just rude, people generally call a meeting because they need help or a group of people to make a decision, and by not engaging, every person in that meeting is effectively saying it’s not that important to them.
Computers are an excuse to not be present
A partner at a firm I worked for a few years ago was reminiscing about the good old days before computers, apparently, when you were a consultant in a merger/acquisition deal, everything would be done by fax or letter, and as a result, everything simply took longer to complete. Whenever you had a meeting, everyone would bring secretaries to take notes, and participants would be present to talk and discuss. Deals took months and even years as a result instead of the lightening speed they happen now.
I must confess, my last experience in the M&A world wasn’t drastically different (but that was over ten years ago) except we did all our analysis faster and questions could be dealt with over email rather than letter. However, when it came to meetings, nobody took a computer, and everyone participated. We all had a big pile of papers in front of us, and we talked like our lives depended on it.
So I don’t think computers are the reason people don’t engage in a meeting, maybe it is environment you work in? I find the computer is just a convenient barrier for most people to hide behind, and trot out the excuse “I take notes on my computer”…
Corporate culture breeds meeting FOMO
When I joined an industry role, I noticed a huge difference in meetings. No meeting has the urgency of consulting and, as a result, everyone “multi-tasks”. Maybe this is my company, maybe it is more widespread, but I find that everyone now attends meetings with a laptop in one hand, and a phone in the other. The result is a room full of keys tapping throughout every presentation, people not focussed, passive participants as life passes by, and it drives me nuts.
And yet, I am as bad a culprit as anyone. I do work throughout meetings, not focussing on the task at hand, but being there “just in case” they need me.
“Just in case” are dangerous words. They are a cause of infinite time suck, over planning and untold stress for things that will most likely never unfold. What is more, in the case of meetings, my presence can have a hugely negative effect: people expect I’m going to object if I don’t agree, and so passively I am accepting every discussion; my team will expect me to advocate on their behalf and not learn to speak for themselves if I am there and so not develop; I will miss many points and opportunities in a meeting by being there, but not being present, and I will miss many other opportunities outside of the meeting I decide to sit in.
Bad meetings make FOMO meeting culture worse
Part of the problem is working in a company with meeting culture. Particularly in companies with a matrix structure, it’s difficult to determine who the decision make truly is, and in most cases, it’s several people who need to agree before you can proceed. Most likely those people have many competing priorities and therefore delegate down to people who must reach agreement with peers cross functionally with no authority. This leads to mass meeting culture where nobody is accountable, nobody owns a decision, but everyone is a stakeholder.
It’s the biggest cause of slow decision making I’ve seen, I wasn’t actually listening and I don’t know enough about this topic, so I’ll ask you to do some more analysis to stall it. If you’re not the decision maker, you cannot push something forward, and you can only end up being a blocker till you get to someone who can say “yes” or “no”
So the first step to killing FOMO meeting culture, is to kill off meetings where no decision making is required. If it’s simply a meeting to update people, send your powerpoint out ahead of time and ask for feedback. Cut the meeting time to 15 minutes and deal with questions only. If you’re going to put the effort in to prepare work, people should put effort in to read and respond. If they can’t prepare, they probably do not have anything to add.
Where you need a decision, be explicit in your ask for the meeting, “we will be discussing and agreeing how to proceed with x, we need y to direct on a preferred solution out of a, b and c”. Focus the discussion and keep it short. Hold people accountable and designate decision makers.
How must I change so as to not be a hypocrite?
So I’m a hypocrite, I cannot get annoyed at others for doing exactly the thing I do, so I must make some changes to my work approach. We’ll see how it works, I heard recently a minimal maxim from the minimalists “Change isn’t impossible, it’s incremental” which may just be my new mantra.
Guidelines for ensuring my meeting engagement
- Never bring a laptop to a meeting where I am not presenting
- Never attend a meeting where I do not anticipate or intend to be an active participant, ask for slides in advance and give feedback proactively.
- Where I attend a meeting, take copious notes and actively engage with the speaker, encouraging others to participate as well.
- Where I am the presenter, request that others do the courtesy of focussing on the presentation and not their laptop.
- Always send a presentation before the meeting, and give people time to read beforehand, even if that means starting it fifteen minutes later.
I’ll leave you with another amazing Dave Barry quote on meetings and corporations
“Meetings are an addictive, highly self-indulgent activity that corporations and other large organizations habitually engage in only because they cannot actually masturbate” – Dave Barry
I originally posted this on my personal blog, but it feels appropriate for a blog on business practices. You can find more personal discussion from me at Simple-Minimal.com