Monday 29 March 2010

The Modern Meeting?

So being as nowadays my job description may as well read "professional meeting attendee victim" I though I'd pen some thoughts as to these timewarp marvels of the modern age...

If you're lucky the invite will arrive in your email inbox the day before the meeting, often however it will appear the same day - the concepts of planning and diary management being long lost in the digital age. As naturally, despite the widespread use of digital online diaries, nobody actually consults them when scheduling meetings - of course this is coupled with the statement "attend, send a deputy or it is understood you agree in advance to any of the possible outcomes"...

Regularly the invite will have been forwarded to other employees by an original invited attendee - this can be rather puzzling for the organiser who, having requested a 3 person meeting, suddenly finds 10 people attending (some of which they will have no idea who they are).

Equally rarely will an agenda have been published as part of the invite, let alone any objectives for the time & cost of the meeting. Now if by some amazing event there actually is a set of material for the meeting it will be circulated as an attachment to the meeting invite 10 minutes after the meeting was due to start - negating any possibility of pre-reading and making the time spent more useful & productive.

Sadly I often see the above used deliberately, as part of the "JTL ambush meeting" strategy.

The meeting itself will last between 45 - 90 minutes and involve at least 3 physical locations, most likely in at least 2 different time-zones, and at least 2 different natural languages. There will be a mix of people participation methods, some in person, some using video conferencing from a room, some using video conferencing from a PC, some via a phone call and others via a webex/livemeeting.

With regards to the attendees :-
  • At least one of the video conferencing participants will also be on another phone call, with the meeting on mute.
  • Another one may well be using webcam chroma key software to 'simulate' the location that they really should be in (pay attention to hearing drinks orders, jukeboxes or cash tills in the background).
  • At least one of the 'by phone' attendees will be at an airport, buying coffees or possibly both - and won't know how to mute their phone
  • Half of the attendees will also be reading their email, a number will be 'handling' IMs, and probably at least one 'working' on a social network update
  • At any only time only 3 people will be paying any form of meaningful attention, including the presenter
  • There will be at least 2 people join the meeting 10+ minutes late, and a different 2 will leave 10+ mins early
  • Normally there is at least one other 'back-channel' meeting going on between a number of the participants using IM/chat tools during the meeting
You should also expect regular audio & video 'drop outs', delays and connection issues during the call... Oh and of course, unless you're working from home, you should also expect your other deck/cube peers to be also on calls - so you won't be able to hear your own call due to the various background noise.

The presenter will still be drafting & editing the inevitable powerpoint slides during the start of the presentation, but despite all the technology, the presenter won't be able to get their laptop connected & showing their presentation until 15mins after the meeting starts.

The slide-set will likely be one of :-
  1. Corporate template style - far too many words and content compromised to shoehorn it into the 'house style', or worse the 'exec dumbed down' 5 slide version where the context is lost to such a point that the content has no meaning at all.
  2. 'web 2.0' style - a few slides, all of which are full screen photographs (located on with one or two words written in a 'cool' font
  3. An internal corporate 'message' presentation (eg HR, brand marketing, strategy etc) - which will look like is says a lot, but on closer inspection is just a collection of colours, letters and transitions that say very little.

Either way if it's a vendor meeting you'll not be allowed a copy of the slides due to their lack of trust for you, if it's internal and you do get a copy the ppt with be 5MB+ in size as a result of meaningless embedded pictures.

Nobody will take a formal set of minutes, let alone any records of decisions, actions or questions. The only time minutes are ever published is when the publisher wants to 'adjust' the outcome of the session.

Of course you'll have such meetings back-to-back all day, and that will be your work pattern from 8am to 6pm at least 5 days a week - outside of these hours is when you can work on the actions collected or doing something useful. At least 'pre video conference' you got a chance to catch a breath and think uninterrupted when you had to use a plane/train for travel...

Some some thoughts re anybody intending to inflict their meeting on me :-
  • I will reject your meeting if it doesn't fit with my diary or time-frame
  • Now that it's so easy to 'communicate' the value drops as more noise enters the system, no longer are meetings valued, prepared for or respected. Please, ask yourself whether throwing a meeting is really necessary, if what is being said can be detailed in a short e-mail then please just use email.
  • Ask yourself if you are properly prepared for running the meeting, meetings disrupt others, interrupt their chain or work & thinking and their deliverables - is your meeting worth more than their work?
  • I prefer communication that has structure, and that I can easily add into my own knowledge-base and records (as my memory can be poor), email & documents allow me to do that (increasingly so does my LiveScribe with it's audio recording matched to searchable handwritten pages).
  • I prefer meetings run on content & quality rather than duration, if something needs 4hrs due to it's criticality then we won't 'squeeze it in somewhere', similarly if it only needs 10minutes don't expect me to help you fill your empty day
  • If you move your meeting invite around often, or at short notice then expect me to decline
  • If you're going to have a mix of attendee methods, remember to introduce the speakers & the slide changes etc to those participating in non-visual ways.
  • I require a copy of any & all materials discussed, and a copy of session minutes issued by the meeting organiser within 48hrs
  • I will mentally calculate the cost of the meeting & attendees and compare this to anything achieved during the meeting, I will charge this to your whuffie 'credibility account'.

Oh and if :-
  1. You schedule your meeting over my lunchtime, and don't provide lunch - or a break for me to locate some - then expect me to be fairly brief with my engagement
  2. You title your diary invite as a 'workshop' expect me to be decidedly miffed and grumpy if there is now light industrial machinery, hammers, welding equipment and sharp knives - you may indeed be part of me finding a new 'direct interactive feedback' use from my steel toe-cap boots!

Meetings can be the ultimate time thief & value loser (think 'looking busy' time), especially if people have to travel. Spending an hour+  in travel for a meeting is not a good use of anybody's time, but similarly neither is still on a conference call, video conference or virtual meeting. It's time to get some basic meeting ethics back into the work culture, and respect other people's time.

People often wonder why I sometimes look exhausted and can be a little grumpy - technology & business culture eh? Nobody in their right mind ever said "I wish I spent more of my life in meetings".... Thank goodness has a few solutions :)


  1. You and I work at the same company, I suspect.

  2. Meeting there is a word you dont hear very often...