I am not too sure whether meetings lower our IQ or whether they make us all more stupid, as my good friend Stowe Boyd reflected on a recent blog post, but I can certainly confirm they do take a toll on your own productivity. Specially, when those meetings are not set up by you, but by everyone else, and therefore making you lose the control, once again, in terms of one of the most precious things all of us, knowledge workers, have that we don’t seem to treasure well enough: Time. Attention management, indeed, is the new currency and it looks like meetings want to keep having that special place in our day to day workload in terms of grabbing most of it: our attention, that is. But perhaps enough is enough. Just like 5 years ago I started challenging the status quo of corporate email with the “A World Without eMail” movement, I think this week it’s a good time to start its follow-up: Life Without Meetings.
I still haven’t settled up on picking up the hashtag I will be using from here onwards to identify the movement (More than happy to read suggestions in the comments, please!), but I am certainly more than willing to getting started with this new initiative, in terms of wanting to improve my own productivity by what appears to be, right now, my biggest time sink while at work: meetings, specially remote meetings. And here is the funny thing. You may be thinking that one of the disadvantages of having moved into this new job as Lead Social Business Enabler at IBM is that I basically spend far too much time meeting up with my new team. Well, that’s not really accurate.
I do meet up with my team, don’t take me wrong, and I enjoy those meetings since they only happen a couple of times here and there per week. In fact, if I were to count the hours I spend on those team meetings it would be probably about 5 to 7 hours per week, which doesn’t sound too bad if I consider the 40 hours of work. Indeed, the issue is not the meetings I have with my immediate team colleagues, but the meetings provoked by everyone else. Specially, from other teams, in other organisations and business units, in other projects with their own agenda, never minding your own. And in this case that is when I do have an issue, because, amongst several other things, they are inconsiderate enough to not be aware of your own work, your own agenda, time, availability and willingness to participate in their projects.
I never use those meeting invite thingies because having a diary full of things that other people are in control of fills me with horror!
— Euan Semple (@euan) April 18, 2013
If you notice, there are plenty of similarities with some of the various different issues that I have highlighted over the last few years in terms of how we keep abusing email through our bad habits and behaviours in a successful effort to try to kill each other’s productivity. Well, apparently, the same thing happens with meetings. Or, perhaps not.
When I was in my previous project I used to average about 10 to 15 hours of meetings per week. Nowadays I am doing between 25 to 30 hours of meetings. About 5 to 7 hours of those are dedicated to team meetings and the rest are remote ones solicited by other teams that want to abuse and take advantage of my reduced attention management span to sneak in. And over the last couple of weeks I am starting to think that the main reason why knowledge workers seem to have an obsession with hosting meetings (Specially, back to back, or what I have learned to call very descriptively as meetings galore) is not that necessarily down to work, but perhaps to a couple of other reasons:
- If you are in the office, meetings are usually put together because you want to see people face to face and play the corresponding political, empowerment and bullying games that you have been taught about really well over the course of time.
- If you are working remotely, like from your home office, or at a customer site, or while travelling, the main reason why people host those remote meetings is because (I know I am going to be very blunt and rather bold on this one, so bear with me) people feel lonely at work, isolated, disengaged with what happens “at the office”, distrusted, disempowered because they are just not there and therefore they provoke those meetings so they can have a good chance at disrupting that and show that they, too, count!
Of course, they do. We all do. But there are different ways of showing and demonstrating that. And perhaps meetings are not the best option anymore. We, human beings, have been stuck in meetings for thousands of years I would think and if you come to consider the huge amount of time we have wasted over the course of time for those meetings, think now about the possibilities and the potential of what we would have done with all of that extra time.
There have been several attempts to try and fix the way we host and conduct meetings in an effort to make them effective. I am sure you, too, may have got your own hints and tips on how to make them work, and I would love to read some more about it in the comments, so feel free to share your best tips. Lately, I am playing myself with a couple of options: creating buffers, participate in meetings no longer than 30 minutes and be ruthless in terms of how many meetings I can participate in during the course of a working day. In my case I set that threshold in 4 hours of meetings per day. Maximum (with the odd exception here and there, of course).
But, apparently, that doesn’t seem to work very well, because I still spend between 25 to 30 hours of meetings per week. Last week, for instance, 26.75 hours were just spent on conference calls participating and hosting meetings. Not good enough, I am afraid. And not good enough not because the meetings may have been rather helpful and useful overall, which they were, but more from the perspective that vast majority of them did *not* need to take place, since we could carry out the work offline and rather effectively.
And this is where I am going to jump in and kick off that movement of “Life Without Meetings“. Because all along I have felt that the vast majority of meetings wouldn’t need to take place if knowledge workers would make a much more effective use of social networking tools for business. You know, All Hands Meetings, Cadence Calls, Weekly Team Meetings, Status Project Reports, Monthly Calls and what not can eventually be conducted and rather effectively through various different social technologies.
Never mind as well how by shifting gears and moving the interactions of those meetings into social networking tools we would have the opportunity to get rid of the two main reasons I mentioned above as to why we are so obsessed with hosting meetings at the moment. You see? We don’t need so show up at meetings to play those political, empowerment and bullying games. We have got work to do. By relying (heavily) on social software tools, if anything, we would never have that strong feeling of being isolated, or ignored, or neglected, as remote employees. Quite the opposite. If there is anything that social networking shines and thrives at is helping us all stay connected, regardless of where we may well be in the world.
And that’s the main reason why I am now ready to kick off this particular initiative where over the course of time I have decided to strive for that goal of seeing the number of meetings I participate in go down to those levels of 10 to 15 hours per week. If I can hit 10 or less, even better. But we have got to get started somewhere, don’t you think? And that’s why from here onwards, and every now and then, depending on the frequency, I will be blogging about different techniques knowledge workers can put in practice to reduce the amount of time they spend in meetings, so that they can carry on with their work. And perhaps I’ll kick things off with a bold statement in terms of sharing with everyone what meetings, to me, should be all about, whether face to face or remote ones: decision making. Anything else, it’s just a waste of time, resources and precious talent that could be working on something much more interesting, relevant, purposeful and meaningful altogether.
So, there! I said it. If you come to think about it, we have spent already a huge amount of time on theorising how we could improve the way we host, both online remote meetings and face to face ones. Everyone seems to have an opinion, or an infographic, as to how to make them better. And that’s just a wonderful thing. I guess what we would need to do next, eventually, is acknowledge that it’s a good time now for action to start re-thinking how we would want to keep hosting and conducting meetings in an effective manner, instead of thinking they are one of most poignant productivity drains within the corporate world. We already know that. Let’s move on. It’s time to roll up our sleeves, get down to work and change the way we get work done through meetings by realising that work does *not* happen when we meet. So how much time do we want to keep wasting away drifting our attention to them instead of figuring out perhaps different ways, methods, techniques of how social / open business tools can help us re-gain our productivity back.
In the recent past, we have already done it for email, so there is no reason, perhaps not even an excuse anymore, why we couldn’t do the same thing for meetings and shape them up the way we would want them to by asking perhaps the first initial key question: What’s the purpose of the meeting? How are you planning on achieving that purpose, and, most importantly, can social technologies help achieve the same goals? Because if they do, there is no need to conduct that meeting any longer. We would then have to redefine again the true meaning of meetings, because the current one is already obsolete, and utterly broken, to match today’s complex collaborative and open knowledge sharing working environment. So, we better get our hands dirty and get down to business. It’s time for us all, knowledge workers, to take back responsibility, buckle up and own them again, as Seth Godin brilliantly quoted not long ago:
“Somewhere along the way, meetings changed into events where we wait for someone to take responsibility (while everyone else dives for cover).
How would you do it differently if the building were burning down? Because it is.”
Finally, an Open Business without meetings.
I am game! … And you?