Friday, October 13, 2006

Meetings

.. don't you just love them?

If you do then this post is not for you. Better still get out of here. You may just be one of the types that usually destroy my happiness during meetings. Get lost in another meeting. You should probably already be there anyway. Or are you reading this during a meeting? Then politely go to the toilet and bang your head against the wall, until it really hurts.

There seem to be more and more meetings

In a recent enough job the Thursday is for the unhappy few a totally unproductive day of the week. In a department of about twenty people (I haven't counted recently so it's most probably less: we're going through a disintegration phase, perhaps more about that some other post) the management has found a way to make three or four meetings (bi-)weekly with subtle differences in composition to talk for at least an hour each about what is going on in our department. Although I must admit that I can only guess this as I am one of the happy few who doesn't have to attend any of the meetings. The most important meeting (again I guess) is on during lunch providing a group of PHBs with a free lunch. The best thing about the Thursday that most of the people who are in meetings that whole day that are free on the Friday. Yep, a lot of part-timers here. This essentially gives them an effective three day work week, that is if we forget that there are more meetings on other days as well. Any decisions made on Thursday (usually avoided until it's no longer impossible to avoid) are kept luke warm during the weekend and only set loose on the Monday so there is plenty of time to sit back with a glass of wine and think it over.

Me being one of the happy few I am still not involved in the Thursday Meeting Frenzy (TMF). But fear not there are plenty of other meetings around. We have team meetings every other week (in which one of us takes notes). These last about an hour, shorter if we can help it. We have the department meeting, also bi-weekly, in which the management tries to tell us stuff that usually people already knew, but sometimes they surprise us with information literally falling from the sky. These last about an hour and a half, provided we do not raise too many questions. Then there are the project status meetings, weekly, set for a comfortable hour, so it's best to come in late. Then we have the one-on-one conversations luckily only once in every six weeks (theoretically). Semi-annually there are the performance meetings that unrelated to the performance last at least 90 minutes.

Roho
Or are you reading this during a meeting? Then politely go to the toilet and bang your head against the wall, until it really hurts.

And I probably have left out a few. I am trying to block meetings from my mind, you see.

Meetings are not the grease in the machine

Meetings are set up usually with good intentions.

  • To keep everyone on the same page (not necessary in the same book though).
  • To point the noses in the same directions (which means looking at the PHB).
  • To make sure that we stay focused (on something blurry).
  • To resolve issues before they arise (= like making a list of unexpected problems we might come across)

Good intentions already cost hundreds of thousands of lives in Iraq alone. So be careful with good intentions. Stay well away from them.

These good intentions never turn from intentions into reality. The meetings are more repeating findings and problems that are already discussed on the work floor or by the coffee machine (which incidentally is the best place for a meeting). Within a (project) team or a department the informal meetings are by far more effective then the scheduled hourly meetings. The informal meetings arise ad-hoc and only last as long as is needed. The scheduled meetings rarely take less time than scheduled. The informal meetings involve only the people needed for the issue at hand. In the scheduled meeting all team members are burdened with a problem that can be resolved if just two people discuss the matter at the coffee machine and make a decision. In the scheduled meeting this (pre-)decision can then be told to the PHB. When one does this the right way you can even make the PHB feel that he was the one who made the decision.

Roho
All in all most meetings are a waste of time and resources.

The idea meetings is that they form the grease to make the machine run smooth. In reality meetings take up unnecessary amounts of time and people are dragged into discussions about minor unrelated problems that do not involve them in anyway other than that they are problems of people who happen to be on the same team. All in all most meetings are a waste of time and resources.

Meetings are the sand in the machine

Apart from the scheduled pain in the behind meetings also form unwelcome breaks in your work. I guess, everyone's PHB occasionally has a few days off or is ill or on a trip to an exotic place to have a demo of the new wireless mouse you don't need. And then there are these great PHB days where they gather in some luxury resort to discuss the much needed savings for the next financial year, something you can not do in a meeting room in your own building. That would cost much less.

When the boss is not there for some time you can see the department moving around a bit more easily, more productive. Did I say a bit? I mean, a lot. It's not just the lack of his or her inspiring presence, but also the lack of a load of meetings being cancelled. Suddenly, you have more time on your hands and also there are less breaks in your production. You can work on without having to go to yet another meeting. Also, less frustration ahead of a meeting and no frustration after meeting because the frustration before meeting was justified.

In these happy periods of no (or hardly any) meetings you find that meetings are the sand in the machine. The stuff that makes it squeak and go slow.

How to avoid the pain of meetings

Some of the following tactics have been used by me or colleagues with some success so I thought it would be good to share them with the world.

  • The first method is never reading any mail in your Inbox so you never know when you have meetings. If you can uninstall Outlook completely.
  • The first method only works for a limited period of time and then you are forced to read your mail. Now decline all meetings with the following specifics:
    • more then five attendees
    • lasting more than 30 minutes
    • involving people form other departments and more than two people from your own department
    • starting before 10 am or after 4 pm
  • Never ever accept any meeting in the ultimate situation where you can not get away with it: accept it tentatively.
  • be away from your desk (toilet or coffee machine or both) five minutes before a meeting starts and only arrive back ten minutes after the planned starting time and just go to work.
  • arrive late with your mobile in your hand and talk impressive stuff (I know you can do it)
  • ask a coworker to call you ten minutes in the meeting on your mobile and leave the meeting again talking impressive stuff into the mobile
  • bring your laptop and read this blog during the meeting and post some comments to it
  • after five minutes into the meeting stand up and say: "Oops I am in the wrong meeting" and leave
  • after five minutes into the meeting stand up and say: "Sorry, I have another meeting" and leave
  • when any other person in the meeting says anything, shake your head and mutter words like "oh dear, oh dear, oh dear", when asked what you are muttering say that this whole issue is not new and has been discussed numerous times and that management should decide and that this is not the pace to discuss this. Whatever the subject.
  • Play a game of Bullshit-bingo with some of your fellow victims and be sure to say it aloud.

Hope this reduces some of your meeting pain. We're all in this together.

This post is based on personal experience with several employers and on some posts I have read all over the Web. Please also read the Disclaimer.