Your Job Is to Attend Meetings

Doug Collins - Sunday, March 07, 2021

People distinguish between attending meetings and doing their jobs: “all these meetings are getting in the way of my real work."

Implicit in this complaint—"I don't have time to get my job done"—is that meetings are an unwelcome imposition upon our more life-affirming endeavors.

What does that mean, exactly? Are organizations hamstringing the business by keeping people from more productive, albeit solitary pursuits?

Maybe. Or, maybe the essential complaint has more to do with our inability to adhere to the taxonomy of meetings.

That is, meetings fall into one of four categories:

an invitation to collaborate—we convene to solve a problem or explore a possibility

an invitation to decide—we convene to have a show of hands on which course of action to pursue

an invitation to be informed—we convene to advise you on a change in circumstances

an invitation to learn—we convene to teach you something useful

Meeting mismanagement, scenarios in which people feel their time is being wasted, can happen when people think they’re attending one type of meeting when in fact they’re really attending another. Sometimes it’s their own fault: they weren’t paying attention to the agenda; other times, the organizers have done a bait-and-switch on the attendees, hoodwinking them—a ten-minute meeting to decide turns into an hour-long airing of historical grievances.

Mismanagement can also happen when the meeting in question is poorly set up and facilitated. The organizers and attendees agree on the meeting type; however, the organizers have made a hash of the engagement, proper.

Common missteps include the following.

One. The invitation to collaborate becomes enforced silence. The presenter informs attendees that “we’ll have plenty of time at the end for questions,” then proceeds to go over time. Often, the presenter overwhelms the group with too much poorly thought out content.

Savvy conveners instead focus the audience on a singular map or graphic as a lead in to pursuing the critical question. In remote sessions they leverage collaborative enablers such as Mural which are designed to facilitate ideation and inquiry, not passive grazing.

Anyone looking to build a culture of innovation within their organization will want to explore enabling capabilities such as Mural and enabling practices such as Appreciative Inquiry.

Two. The invitation to inform could have been handled through a brief memo, with follow ups handled one on one. These meetings can grow to be particularly malignant if they turn into regularly scheduled sessions to “touch base.”

Savvy conveners instead embrace the lost art of memo writing: getting their thoughts down to less than one page and then sharing that missive with their audience. Follow-up questions can be handled one-on-one.

Three. The invitation to decide is instead an invitation to be informed of the decision. Participants realize that the usual backroom dealing has occured. They are being asked to play a part in play where the ending has already been written.

Savvy conveners instead tread carefully on this one, focusing on what, excactly is the decision to be made, who is in the position to make it, and what are the implications of a thumbs up or thumbs down.

My experience has been that effective meeting management starts with naming the purpose of the meeting--“this is a meeting to decide or this is a meeting to brainstorm." From there, the conveners can work on their faciltitation skills for each scenario. Progress can be measured in part by how many meetings to inform go by the wayside.

Meetings are the currency by which we value our time at work. They are the means by which the work gets done. It’s a mystery why, having attended so many of them, we haven’t gained more mastery over them. Instead of treating them as anomalous interruptions to our day we should welcome them as the first necessary step to improving upon them.

From today forward look forward to your meetings. Savor each one as your work: as your chance to contribute, decide, learn, or be informed. At the same time hold the meeting organizer’s feet to the fire when it comes to naming intent and to structuring the calls properly.

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