Death by Meetings

Do you have a work day start and finish with nothing accomplished ? I have had many days like that and those days also felt heavy and exhaustive … But nothing much got done. Time went by and several pages of notes went by and still a sense of accomplishment wasn’t there.

Those days in my case were days of “back to back” meetings or in the new SMS language “b2b” mtgs or in the new lingo “h2h” interaction !! On Friday I was catching up with an old friend and she said the same thing. She exhaled loudly and said, “what a long day I had of doing nothing”, and when I asked what happened, she says, “was in a five hour meeting, going over some 200 slides, and then three meetings of two hours each.” That set me thinking.

I want to draw some parallel with the manufacturing industry, where there are huddles that happen everyday before every shift and important information is shared, concerns heard and changes made. In the knowledge economy and where an intangible like service is the product, what role does a supervisor or manager or leader have ? So let’s take the example of the shop floor of a telephone services company, rows of customer service colleagues with headsets who take calls from customers. Then you have supervisors or team leaders who are logged in and listening randomly to calls to ensure quality of service and sometimes handle escalations. Then you have the manager of manager and then the group leader and if there are service verticals, then the vertical leader and then the operations leader. Meetings that happen at the operations leader level may still be fruitful ones, with delivery, people and customer issues being discussed. The problem starts as the delivery leader has his/her meetings beyond the reviews – to pull together presentations for leadership, to talk about facility issues, to do-redo-redo-redo-redo the success stories and accomplishments, set goals, etc etc. Then manager “meets” happen, issues get rehashed, lots of drinking and dancing in the name of fun happens and money is spent with no improvement in engagement or performance.

The worst “day long” meetings are when you have a nebulous leader leading a nebulous role with nebulous deliverables. Okay, I may get into trouble for saying this, but there are some roles, especially in the BPO world that go horizontally across the verticals to ensure “best practices” flow across the organization. Best practices can never flow without adjusting them for the context of any vertical, but these horizontal leaders and their groups create most of the unproductive meetings. Since nothing is clear, guess there is job insecurity as well, so long meetings fill the day !!

I have a simple rule of keeping meetings to 30 minutes… Many people don’t like me for this, but it helps to keep the day open for real work. I still remember the look on one of my colleague’s face as I told him to bring the eight hours set aside for reviewing projects down to 30 minutes :). I do have meetings that go longer, for an hour or for four hours or a whole day, but there are specific outcomes and general rambling is usually not appreciated. I have a favorite statement that people who work with me know very well – “I have a short fuse for long meetings”, I know that’s not pleasant many times, but we manage to get more done. Do I end up having unproductive meetings ? Ofcourse. Do I subject myself to 200 slides, yes. Do I end up sitting in day long unproductive meetings, yes, many times. But by being almost maniacal about keeping short meetings, I save a lot of time.

There was a phrase coined for our over dependence on PowerPoint and the long presentations, “death by PowerPoint”. I think, many executives die thrice over, once by PowerPoint and then the long meetings that are needed for those slides to be read out and the third time reading the long emails that accompany the PowerPoint slides sent after the long meeting. Hey, that’s work for some people and I don’t want them losing their jobs…. But get a life ! 🙂

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