Something that you really learn as you progress through your career is the need for real distinctions to be made between emails and meetings. Quite often, especially in the academic and research world, we get these mixed-up and schedule meetings when email communication would be better . . . and vice-versa.
I remember a story that a colleague recounted for me after an “away day” with their organization where they all had to bring their diaries and do some analysis of their schedules etc.
The interesting thing that I remember from the conversation was that the workshop facilitators made the point that if you are committed to six hours or more of meetings per week, then your position (i.e., not you personally), is not productive.
At first hearing this, I sniggered to myself and was saying internally “Jez, wanna walk in my shoes for a week or two”. However, the point wasn’t just about the six hours per se. It really meant that those six hours could be, realistically, a great deal more because:
– meetings rarely start or finish on time;
– all meetings involve advance preparation – reading of agenda papers, preparation of papers for agenda items;
– brain power (!) that isn’t being spent on other productive issues for either you or the organization;
– it takes time to travel to and from meetings – even if they are in your own workplace;
– many people meet-up for a pre-meeting and / or a post-meeting coffee and chat;
– meetings are generally scattered across your working week rather than compressed into one or two days;
– meetings disrupt the flow of a day’s work – and this can lead to low productivity both before and after the meeting;
– etc . . .
So, whilst it may seem like only a small amount of time when you first look at it, six hours is actually quite a lot.
Whilst I am all for meetings, I find that email can often present a useful solution, especially due to its asynchronous benefits. For example, everyone participates and contributes when it works best for them and their own individual workflow. Doing this can overcome some of the issues highlighted above.
Meetings should be “special”, in that they should be devoted to important issues and matters that require active participation and deliberation.
The best meetings that I have ever attended were Chaired by individuals who kept one issue in mind at all times: focus.
Example 1: Kevin
Kevin made every meeting feel like it could be fun. He always laughed at the fact that he was “in charge” and had to be the “adult”. He genuinely found this to be hilarious. Kevin’s approach and attitude were both disarming and encouraging.
Kevin declared that because he was “no expert”, we would have “solution focused meetings”. In these meetings, everyone got a chance to present their issue quickly (so as not to bore everyone), with a focus on the need to present what they thought, or wanted, the solution to be. In other words, the meetings weren’t a waste of time – no listening to everyone whining about their issue with no sight of a solution.
Everyone enjoyed these meetings because each person’s contribution was welcomed and valued – with everyone being trusted to be their own expert at finding a potential solution to the problem. In this way, it was always interesting to hear about a colleague’s issue because you knew they would be brief . . . knowing that human nature favours the need to be seen as a solution provider rather than someone who just grumbles about the issue.
It can be rewarding hearing about an issue from a colleague and them saying “Listen, rather than just complain and come here looking for you to fix the problem for me, I’ve really thought about this, and I’d like “planning permission” to do X and Y as I think this might work – what do you think? ”
As I said above, everyone always thoroughly enjoyed these meetings, because Kevin made them seem less serious than they were, with no-one feeling that people were “out to get them”. We also felt good going to these meetings as they were constructive and full of solutions and contributions. Who wouldn’t want to go to a meeting like that?
Example 2: Phillip
I had the opportunity at one point in my career to sit on an Executive Board. Sounds serious . . . doesn’t it! Well, it was, and it was a great experience of how meetings should be run. The Chair of the Board, Phillip, was an “old hand” at this type of work, having served extensively in industry and politics. To say that watching Philip in action was a Master Class would be a huge understatement. He really was on top of his brief.
The one thing that Philip reminded us of at the start of every meeting was that we were Executive Officers, and that the job of an Executive was to execute decisions. Whilst this seems rather straightforward, it isn’t really until someone reminds you that you are there – not just to discuss agenda items – but to execute decisions based on the agenda and the work that had been brought to the meeting in terms of Action Points and so forth from previous meetings. After all, if the Executive Board of an organization cannot make definitive and actionable decisions, what hope for the success of the organization?
In reality, these were very strict meetings, with all papers delivered to Philip in good time, and subsequently delivered to everyone well in advance of the meeting. If you hadn’t prepared adequately for the meeting, you’d have been better not turning up – you would have been in serious trouble!
Every meeting would last exactly two hours. Never longer and rarely shorter. Meetings started at exactly the correct time and Philip exercised control over the progress of the meeting – allowing for discussion, debate, analysis, decision making, etc.
I guess it was the strictness of how Philip operated that allowed you to “buy in” to the meetings – you knew that they were always on time, well managed, with executive decisions being made. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that kind of process?
So, that’s two examples of meeting styles that I have found to be effective and useful. I haven’t mentioned Skype here because that is a bit different from email and these traditional face-to-face meetings.
Whilst I love the fact that meetings can also facilitate social and personal interaction and “catch-up”, I’m gradually learning that because of an increasingly busy schedule as an academic and researcher, I’m going to have to get better at realising the distinction between when a meeting is really necessary and when it isn’t. I’ll have to sacrifice my natural urge to meet in person and make email communication work better . . . to help me work smarter.
I guess this is just one of those facts of life that you learn as you get older 🙁
Posted on 3rd October, 2015. Copyright Conor Mc Guckin