Friday, February 27, 2009

A Meeting of Minds

Linda came back from work yesterday with a fascinating story. The group she manages had a breakfast roundtable discussion, and the key speaker was a CIO who discussed how his department and company were coping with the need to cut jobs during the economic downturn.

Part of their process had been to map out what the staff were doing and how productive they were being. As you might expect, they discovered there was overlap among quite a few employees. What you might not have expected was also a surprise to them.

They discovered that one woman spent virtually all of her time doing nothing but attending meetings.

This is kind of a litmus test. When you hear this your reaction is either A) what a waste of time! or B) where can I get this job? I am pretty sure most people choose A because most people hate meetings with a passion.

There's an interesting New York Times article by Reid Hastie that makes the point that meetings actually tend to reduce an organization's productivity. He writes, "As a general rule, meetings make individuals perform below their capacity and skill levels."

Hastie's chief point seems to be that busy people are short of time. Most meetings take up far too much time and produce almost no substantial results. Losing that time in the meeting is almost as bad as losing money yet people are careless about it. "Time is the most perishable good in the world and it is not replenishable," he writes. "You can't earn an extra hour to use on a busy day."

Having run more meetings than I care to admit, I know there's more to it than that, though. Meetings are also great ways to establish the pecking order, to show who's important. Oh, and once in a while to share information.

Let's face it, calling a meeting says, "I am important enough to call a meeting and ask you to show up and waste your time." And going to, say, the boss's meeting says, "I am important enough that the boss wants me to share my ideas, which will be the only part of the meeting that isn't a waste of time."

So I have come up with a proposal that will simultaneously increase business productivity, ease the economic pressures on pensioners and yet retain the status-building benefits of the current system.

I am organizing fellow retirees to become stand-in meeting attendees for busy businesspeople. We'll call it The Grey Proxies, and like the daemons in the Golden Compass we will show up at, say, the quarterly results meeting and simply walk in and explain whom we are representing.

The Grey Proxies will not say anything at the meetings, which will shave precious minutes for those who choose to attend it themselves. They will, however, laugh at the meeting organizer's jokes and may, at the end, compliment people on their PowerPoint presentation.

During the meeting the Grey Proxies will take copious notes, although in fact they will be writing letters or solving Sudoku puzzles since they will have no interest in the topic of the meeting. In this they will be similar to several of the actual attendees.

After the meeting, they will brief the person they represent. It will be concise and very nearly always take the same form. "The meeting was a waste of time."

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