Hi, I'd like to have a really boring meeting with you today.
Can you imagine seeing this invitation in your inbox?
Subject: Hi, I’d like to have a really boring meeting with you today.
When: First thing in the morning (before you have a chance to think).
Duration: 10 minutes longer than I say it will last.
Notes: I’d like to get everyone together because I think I should. Or do you think I should? I can’t remember. In any case, we’ll half-heartedly shift through a variety of topics and try to make progress on passing the time, which is the only item we’ll actually be able to measure. Towards the end someone may bring up something vaguely controversial but we’ll all feel awkward and so it won’t get discussed. The great news is that the content will be so boring that even banal humor will sound hilarious, so bring a feeble joke and you’ll feel like you’re moderately interesting. Wish I wouldn’t be meeting you but I’ll see you there regardless.
If you got this invitation it would take you all of two seconds to press DELETE and move on. But the reality is that every day, most of us sit in meetings basically identical to this. And the harsher reality for me is that I actually run some of them! Ack.
I’ve read two things in the last day that have me thinking about my meetings, my work, and how to make both more effective. The first is Read This Before Our Next Meeting by Al Pittampalli. In this insightful, concise book, Pittamapalli basically asserts two things: 1) we’re all run by our meeting schedule, and 2) most meetings are shockingly ineffective, so much so that they risk paralyzing our work culture. Check and check.
His advice basically boils down to “Don’t point out a problem without proposing a solution.” He contends that most meetings can be dispensed with. In his model, the central purpose of an effective meeting should not be to “decide something,” which only leads to circular discussion, delay, and lack of accountability. Rather, a meeting should be used to present a decision to a problem in order to solicit criticisms of the proposed solution and input on how to implement it.
Pittampalli acknowledges that this approach requires the willingness to write memos (and the willingness to read them). And he spares “work sessions,” brainstorming discussions, and one-on-one conversations, which are at the center of his approach. But everything else — weekly status meetings, management meetings, team meetings, project meetings — gets the axe.
I like it, and I feel like I’ve read similar advice before. What really caught my eye in Pittampalli’s text was not his critique of meetings per se, but his emphasis on recapturing alone time to increase productivity. That second idea is core to a short article by Susan Cain in Friday’s New York Times passed on to me by my friend and colleague Jono Smith. (As always, you can find the link to Cain’s article — and Pittampalli’s book — in the “References” section at the top of this post.)
Writing of “The Rise of the New Groupthink,” Cain contends that the modern push towards collaboration is killing creativity and effectiveness, both of which require solitude to flourish. Unlike Pittampalli, Cain doesn’t spare brainstorming sessions, which she describes as “one of the worst possible ways to stimulate creativity.”
I absolutely loved Cain’s piece. It completely resonated with me and described something I’ve always had a hard time explaining about myself: Why that, for a moderately social person, I need quite a bit of down time to regenerate. My best work, whether it be strategic positioning, analytics, writing, composition, or anything else, always happens through long periods of solitary time punctuated by interesting conversations with people I trust and admire. And the meetings I do value are more like bull sessions than anything else. (I also share Cain’s disdain for brainstorming meetings. Put me in a room of more than a few people to “talk something through” or “come up with great ideas” and I start nodding off.)
Further, Cain puts her finger on a seeming contraction I’ve noticed in our firm. At first I thought it was an outgrowth of a distributed work environment, but now I see it as a larger dynamic in the modern workplace: Many of us simultaneously yearn for more collaboration and at the same time loudly complain about being shuffled into too many meetings. The two are obviously not the same, Cain points out — tight schedules are not the same as increased connectedness.
Taken together, I’ve found a powerful 2012 professional charter in the two articles: Reduce meaningless “group time” designed to either hem & haw about this & that or magically inspire camaraderie; and instead create more productive stretches of solitude for my team and myself.
I’m not sure that I can do it, but given that I’m trying to swear off skepticism, it’s worth a shot. Plus, I’m tired of hearing everyone complain about how they “have so many meetings they can’t get anything done.” That’s really one of the most idiotic things any of us could say about our work, and yet almost everyone I know says it all the time.
Enough’s enough! Never mind the boring meeting — it’s cancelled.