A Slow Death by a Thousand Meetings

This post will cover some of the difficulties of meetings. I can’t make them better but maybe less worse.

Patching the Paper Cuts

A single inefficient meeting is a paper cut on your day. Then there’s another, and another, and you start to wonder if it really needs to be this painful. Can you make your meetings more efficient?

Running meetings well is a common topic and you’ve probably gotten a lot of this same advice like setting agendas, inviting only relevant attendees, etc. This works well when you are the organizer. I don’t want to be the organizer for every meeting. Guess what will happen if you show your managers that you can run meeting well? That’s right, you’re asked to run all the meetings.

When it comes to making meeting more effective, I focus more on showing other people what effective meetings look like and hope they start adopting those habits. More often than not though I get:

Coworker or Manager: Alacritical, you ran that meeting well and your notes with action items were really helpful.

Me: Maybe we should make that a best practice for all of our meetings.

Coworker or Manager: That’s a lot of work though.

I tried. Moving on…

 

More detailed meeting advice.

Preventing Further Hemorrhaging

What was a simple paper cut has now multiplied in to what appears to be a growing flesh wound of meetings that’s killing your productivity, raising your blood pressure, and destroying all relationships built by last month’s team whirly ball event. For whatever reason, the meeting keep coming and from a place higher up than you can see. What to do?

Just Don’t Go

The first recourse is to not go. There are several ways to say ‘no’ to going to a meeting:

  • My time is more useful working on <insert anything that isn’t a meeting>
  • There are 5 other people from my team attending and I can’t provide further value
  • No

If you want to decline a meeting, it really helps to have the support of your manager to help you say no. If you don’t, you’ll likely been seen as “going rogue” and break some of the social equity you have with people calling for and running the meetings.

When you decline, a few things can happen:

  1. No one notices and they make a really terrible decision without you. This paranoia keeps me going to meetings that may derail things I’m working on.
  2. They notice only 1 minute before the meeting starts and they demand your presence, thus disrupting you and causing stress to everyone involved.
  3. They immediately notice and ask you why you can’t make it and if there is a replacement.

Take a guess at which one almost never happens (it’s 3).

 

Negotiate away

We are repeatedly told about how important collaboration in a team environment is. Team environment. Unless you are the only person with your title on a team, the only competent person on the team, the only person not on vacation, or the only person with context, you can ask someone else on your team to go to a meeting. Sadly, you may find yourself the effective “only person on your team” quite often. If, however, you can ask someone else to take the meeting in exchange for another meeting they might have or an interview, you can potentially select to go to only useful meetings.

If you want to use this option:

  • Document your work so you can easily pass context to someone else
  • Don’t become the “point of contact” to anyone outside the team for any you aren’t directly leading
  • Determine which meetings are your lesser evils and your teammates’ greater evils

Call in

If I have to go to a meeting, I see if I can call in. Even if I’m just sitting at my desk in the same building, I will try to call in. This helps me because it reduces the amount of stress from the meeting. I am happy to follow up 1:1 or via email if I want to clarify anything rather than get into a “who can talk louder” match in person. Also, if I need to, I can play with my cats during the call to regain some perspective.

Checking in to Hospice

You’ve tried asking, bargaining, and shirking but none of it works. At this point, you have to go to these meetings even though it’s a painful waste of time. If I’m going to be stuck in a meeting, I might as well make it useful.

First, you can see if you can use the meeting to meet your other career goals. Can you:

  • Use the meeting to mentor your teammates to have better communication.
  • Use the meeting to practice your “influencing without authority”* skills.
  • Use the meeting to practice reading body language and understanding how to gauge interest of the participants. You could be the next real life Mentalist.
  • Use the meeting to gather content for your next blog post or to start a blog.

Second, can you find a way to make the time you’re in that meeting personally useful to you. For example:

  • Practice a hobby that’s not distracting: doodling, knitting, or putty sculpting. Apparently this helps people learn.
  • Try to reach your water consumption goal for the day in that one meeting and/or also test your bladder capacity.
  • Practice mindfulness techniques

Finally, if you can’t make the meeting better, try not to make it worse. Try not to be on your laptop so that people have to repeat questions to you. Try not derail on to side topics. Try not to request a follow up meeting. Try not to doodle obscenities to see who notices first.

*My level of dislike for this phrase knows no bounds.

Note

When we talk about meetings we think about the calendar invite coming in through Gmail or Outlook. Meetings can be ad-hoc and you should apply the same bar to ad-hoc meetings as for planned meetings. Why? Because humans will learn that you do what they want when not given forewarning and now you’ve effectively trained them to only surprise you with meetings.

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