Two people sit mostly naked in the snow, breathing deeply. They remain quiet and still for a long time.
At least it feels like a long time to one of them. The other –
a more advanced student – rests in comfortable contemplation, focusing deeply on sending healing energy throughout his body.
The first one wants to send healing to his body, too. If only it wasn't so damn cold! As the minutes pass, he begins to fear that bits of him must surely be freezing off. His anxiety escalates until he feels compelled to flee for the warm cabin.
An outside observer would say that these two men shared the same experience. But really, their individual feelings about the time they spent couldn't be more different.
One experienced a tortuous ordeal.
The other experienced a nourishing moment of calm.
This anecdote, relayed in the book What Doesn't Kill Us by Scott Carney, holds two lessons for the meeting designer.
It looks to me like we've broken work. Not for everyone, and not everywhere, but for a lot of teams the WE part of work isn't working.
I know. This isn't new.
Work has been kinda broken for a lot of people for a long time. But take it from a lady who deploys lots of duct tape and safety pins: there's a big difference between kinda broken and all-the-way broken.
The lockdowns broke office work. They forced many people out of jobs, and many more into isolation in an attempt to protect our communities. Even though we went through this experience together, we experienced it alone. We were forced to craft a way of working that was uniquely tailored to our individual circumstances. As "3 weeks to flatten the curve" morphed into multiple years with an ever-shifting end goal, we developed new habits.
Before that, there wasn't much need. Horses rarely ran into each other, and most people traveled by foot. There were no speed limits, no lane markings, no directional signage, and few street name signs. Traffic control was not a thing.
The first stop sign was an intervention. More cars led to more accidents, and something had to be done.
Since then, our understanding of how to manage traffic has evolved. Today, the stop sign is one of many internationally recognized signals. We enjoy sophisticated, continually evolving systems for routing traffic.
Like rapid travel, meetings used to be an infrequent activity. Courtiers, guild masters, and bishops met. Everyone else went about their business with no need to draft an agenda or call anyone to order.
While the 20th century saw a rise in the management class, it wasn't until the 1980s that most of the workforce held jobs that required regular meetings.
Still, there wasn't too much traffic running through the conference room. Most companies shared a few meeting tips with leaders, then expected everyone to work it out.
Then the 2020 lockdowns arrived, and meeting traffic exploded. Calendars became gridlocked with overlapping, back-to-back video conferences. Software that analyzes calendar data saw increases in meeting time ranging from 13-148% (Sources: National Bureau of Economic Research, Microsoft). So many meetings!
Two years later, employees everywhere are crashing and burning out from sitting in endless meeting traffic jams.
The Great Resignation is hitting some companies harder than others. Companies with a well-designed Meeting Operating System - a system that directs meeting activity to ensure meetings flow effectively and efficiently - enjoy calendars that look a lot like they did before the lockdown. Those embracing asynchronous communications have even more time free for other work.
Many teams endure too much time wasted in unproductive meetings. I am increasingly convinced that this is not due to a lack of knowledge.
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We are awash in information about How to plan and run productive meetings. We have centuries of useful tips and multiple professions full of people who know how to structure and lead a productive meeting to draw upon.
I believe instead that those ineffective meetings are a systemic issue. If leaders really wanted to address their meeting problems, they could - but they don't.
Something gets in the way. That something is baked into the team culture. It's the
"how things get done around here." It's a system that has no allowance for making changes to meetings.
Of course, the company handbook doesn't decree that "Thou shalt run soul-sucking meetings." If the meetings are bad and we're not talking about the meetings, then that's a shadow system. Shadow systems are full of unwritten rules, workarounds, and habits governing how people interact. Part ingenuity, part social conformity, and a whole bunch of just not looking too closely because we have other priorities right now thank you very much.
Last week's invasion of Ukraine resurfaced this conversation. Looking back, the Notre Dame fire seems merely unfortunate in comparison to the events of the past several years. We've been bombarded by tragedies, and many teams have developed better ways of processing these events together.
Even still - when new events unfold, we need to decide: What should we do in our upcoming meetings?
Should we begin by acknowledging what's happening, even though most meetings deal with entirely unrelated topics? And how can you NOT talk about it?
As a meeting leader, you may feel it's important to address something that you believe is or should be on everyone's mind before diving into your agenda.
You might be right, You might also be making an assumption that could derail your meeting.
I enjoy planning meetings. I also enjoy large, easy jigsaw puzzles.
When you know the basic shape you’re going for, and you have a bunch of the pieces handy, it can be quite satisfying to get them to all fit together into a nice, coherent picture. With a jigsaw puzzle, it’s very clear that the value is in the activity itself. People who puzzle do so because they enjoy spending their time figuring it out—not because they’re genuinely curious about what the end picture might be.
Like the picture you see when you finish a jigsaw puzzle, most of the plans you get at the end of a planning meeting aren’t really meant to last.
Meeting overload, zoom fatigue, and too much time wasted in unproductive meetings: these problems grow during periods of rapid change. Bad meetings proliferate when we struggle to communicate well. And when things change rapidly, we need to share more information more often to keep on top of the situation.
According to a 2013 study by PMI, $75 million for every $1 billion spent on projects is put at risk by ineffective communications. (source)
Remember 2013? Looking back, those seem like such simple times! How much more money do you imagine we're losing now, after two years of constant uncertainty? If we struggled to share information effectively back then, it's no wonder that today's meeting madness has become so overwhelming.
Now imagine, what else might we accomplish if we could redirect those wasted funds (and time and energy) towards achieving some worthwhile goals?