3 Things We Did That Saved My Company From Meetings Hell
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Meeting Acceptance Syndrome. It was an idea I first learned of during a seminal TED talk — one that I think should be required viewing during every new employee orientation at organizations large and small. Almost all of us are guilty of not protecting our schedules and, even worse, not protecting those of our colleagues. A small number of people are disciplined about saying no to meetings they don’t need to be in. But often, those same people will send meeting invites to a number of unnecessary attendees, just so they will not feel left out. Those invitees, especially if they are junior, feel like they can’t say no — and end up attending meetings where they say nothing and have no active purpose other than taking up space. Poof! An hour of productivity disappears into the ether, never to be regained.
The cost to businesses of unnecessary meetings and wasted time is immense — perhaps as much as $37 billion a year. The good news is that with some rethinking about organizational frameworks and a healthy dose of modern technology utilization, you can save yourself and your organization from wasted time and dollars. Here are three key learnings we’ve used across our portfolio that have proven especially effective.
Recognize makers vs. managers
Paul Graham’s 2009 post discussing the two types of jobs and their accompanying schedules is just as relevant today as it was then. In short, within any organization, individuals have "maker" responsibilities — the hard work of actually developing, designing and building the product (alongside a host of other roles); and "manager" responsibilities — typically, managing people who are doing the making. The more senior you become with an organization, the more manager work vs. maker work you generally have. Few jobs are all one or the other. Almost all jobs will fall somewhere on a spectrum between the two.
Problematically, the schedules that work best for each role are very different. Makers do their best work in large blocks of uninterrupted time. Managers usually manage in discrete chunks of time where they can meet with the many team members who they have a hand in managing. Managers tend to have the disproportionate balance of power to dictate schedules, so makers are at the whim of the managers' time preferences — and often end up with suboptimal schedules for doing their deep work.
Your first order of business is to identify the makers and managers in your organization. You should acknowledge those who need big blocks of time to do good work, and be aware of the inherent imbalance of power that exists within any organization.
Find a balance between consumptive time and productive time
Another powerful concept is how to balance consumptive time vs. productive time. In The Vanishing American Adult, Ben Sasse explains how we’ve become a country of consumers as opposed to producers, and the deleterious effects that trend will have on future generations. Sadly, this has bled into our business life as well. Even well-intentioned consumption can be dangerous. You read that extra article to educate yourself (the irony here is not lost on me); you attend that extra webcast, conference or meeting that ultimately isn't that important; you schedule that get-to-know-you coffee with someone who is in a distant department from yours. In isolation, none of these activities are terribly harmful, but it amounts to death by a thousand small demands on your precious time.
There needs to be a conscious shift away from consumptive time and toward productive time. This is time spent making things, on critical meetings that need to happen, and narrowly focusing on key results that will drive your business and personal objectives forward.
Your second order of business is to adopt this philosophy personally, and then broadly throughout your organization. You should encourage others to remove “consumptive” activities from their calendar to make space for “productive” work instead. Remove unnecessary meetings altogether. Remove people from meetings if they don't truly need to be there. Skip the coffee with someone you hardly work with. All of these start at the top.
I was recently reviewing a job description. In the second bullet, about why the company was a great place to work, they mentioned that they don't have many meetings. Instead, they solve most problems asynchronously. First of all, what does it say about a problem when it is positioned as the second most compelling reason to work somewhere? At that point, it's not just a problem, it’s an epidemic. Second, the ability to solve problems asynchronously hammers home the reality that technology has enabled a new style of working — one that necessitates far fewer meetings to get the same amount of high-quality work done.
Your third order of business is to ensure your organization is using the necessary technology to solve problems asynchronously. Then, start purging meetings that your organization does not need. Do this exercise every quarter. Most organizations are like poorly-tended grocery stores: their shelves are stocked with too many meetings far past their "use by" date. Be Whole Foods, not Willie’s Food Mart.
What comes next
Invariably, the process does not end there. And as you've probably realized, it’s an ongoing battle. But it’s one of the most important ones you will fight. Once you build an awareness of how your organization operates, you can start to unclog the time drains. Like any clogged drain, the process might go slow at first; but when you finally clear it up, you’ll be amazed at how everything starts to flow.