Category Archives: Meetings

Shorter Meetings

I’ve been trying something new lately when it comes to meetings. I started by looking at the number of meetings I attend. I don’t think I am too far outside the norm by saying, I seem to attend a significant number of meetings. I think I have said this before. We may have hit the point where we seem to establish our credibility and measure our value contribution by the number of meeting we attend. We have now associated attending meetings with making progress.

I then started looking at what actual portion of the meeting was I actually engaged in or contributing to. I am sure there are those that would question my engagement or contribution to any meeting I attend or participate in.

The point here however, is that I found that there were specific portions or times during meetings where the topic being discussed was germane to me and I needed to be fully engaged and participative. The rest of the time, maybe not quite so much.

When I looked further at this relative “down” time I would experience in a meeting, I found that a significant portion of it was associated with what I will call “related” meeting topics, not the specific meeting topics. I’ll give an example.

I was in a project review meeting where the objective was to detail the status of the project. An issue was identified. This is a good thing. But it quickly caused the meeting to go off the rails. Instead of identifying the issue, and assigning those responsible to work out a resolution, those responsible for working out a resolution proceeded to try and work out their solution – during the review, with everyone else waiting to contribute their portions of the review.

The issue was important. But more so specifically to a subset of all those in attendance. The rest of the meeting attendees (myself included) time was less than efficiently spent listening to the attempted resolution of a topic that may not have been completely defined, or fully germane to their areas of focus.

In other words. We sat there on the call.

The meeting dragged on. Another issue was identified which created another attempt at an on-line resolution.

The meeting ran out of time so that those at the end of the agenda had to curtail their reports.

The meeting ran over the allotted time.

Parkinson’s Law was reaffirmed.

For those of you that are not familiar with Parkinson’s Law, according to Google, it is as follows:

“Work expands to fill the time available for its completion. A proverb coined by the twentieth-century British scholar C. Northcote Parkinson, known as Parkinson’s Law. It points out that people usually take all the time allotted (and frequently more) to accomplish any task.”
https://www.google.com/search?source=hp&ei=BhmlW5GQIsvzzgLem5qABg&q=work+expands+to+fill+time&oq=work+expands+&gs_l=psy-ab.1.0.0l2.1768.4291..6750…0.0..0.86.947.13……0….1..gws-wiz…….0i131j0i10.QQZmraKUhpQ

It seems that it may have its roots in science (Physics actually, and as we all know I am extremely fond of Physics).

”This law is likely derived from ideal gas law, whereby a gas expands to fit the volume allotted.”
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parkinson%27s_law

And as we all know, if it is science, it must be true.

As with any scientific theory, several corollaries have been created as a result.

“The first-referenced meaning of the law has dominated, and sprouted several corollaries, the best known being the Stock–Sanford corollary to Parkinson’s law:

“If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.”
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parkinson%27s_law

Other corollaries include Horstman’s corollary to Parkinson’s law:

“Work contracts to fit in the time we give it.”
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parkinson%27s_law

All of this got me to thinking. And, as we also all know, this can be a dangerous situation for not only me, but all those involved or effected. It seems to me that meetings have taken on a status where it’s okay to ramble and take extra time, because invariably we make excuses for, or accept this kind of meeting behavior. The end result is that the meeting does achieve is goal, but it takes far more time than anyone is comfortable spending, and no one feels a sense of accomplishment when it is done.

My answer to this issue was pretty simple.
I made my meetings shorter.

Instead of having a one-hour review, once a week on Wednesdays, I scheduled two – one half hour reviews on Tuesday and Friday. I didn’t reduce the agendas or topics either. We covered everything in each meeting.

You might ask how this is possible? The answer is really very simple.

I became ruthless in cutting non-specific meeting discussions off.

If the meeting is a review, then it was a read-out, or reporting delivery only. If an issue was identified, it was immediately taken off-line, with an action item and an owner identified and would be resolved so that it could be read out and reported during the next half-hour call.

No exceptions.

It took a couple of meetings for the team to understand and get the rhythm of the approach, but the results have been very apparent. The project is moving faster. Ownership of issues and their resolution is much clearer. Progress is accelerated.

Just to review: we are spending the same total amount of time in meetings on the project reviews, but we are making more, and faster progress toward our objectives.

Looking back at Horstman’s Corollary to Parkinson’s Law, meaning if work expands to fill available time, that it should also contract to fit available time. Parkinson’s Law would mean if we schedule a one hour review we will conduct the meeting in such a way as to fill the full hour (and then some). Horstman’s Corollary would say that if we reduce the available time from one hour to a half-hour, we should be able to get the work done in that interval as well.

They both seem to be correct.

The issue is changing what were full hour meeting behaviors to the now necessary half-hour meeting behaviors. That means:

Ruthlessly staying on topic.
If it is a read-out meeting, read out only. Issues need to be taken off line, resolved and then read out at the next read-out meeting. If it is an issue resolution meeting, resolve the identified issue only. Don’t read out. Don’t work on other, related issues.

Cutting them off.
Many times, presenters do not know how to end their presentations. Sideline discussions, anecdotes, stories and all other manner of communications needs to be curtailed. Then move on.

Action Items.
Just because non-germane topics come up does not mean that they are not important topics. Clearly note them. Assign an owner and a time for resolution – and move on. Do not allow the group to lose focus on the topic at hand. This will keep everyone engaged.

Own it.
If it is your meeting, then it is your responsibility not to waste everyone else’s time. Stay on topic. Cut them off if necessary. Assign the action items. Publish the meeting minutes.

I didn’t set out to prove what are widely regarded as accurate, if not tongue-in-cheek axioms regarding how time is spent in business. I actually set out to see if I could start to reduce the amount of “down” time I was spending in meetings in general.

I am reasonably well convinced that the reason we have so much multi-tasking during meetings is due to the length and engagement requirements we now seem to expect in our meetings. We know the meeting will be longer than we want. We know that we will really only need to be fully engaged and aware for a relatively small percentage of the time that the meeting is conducted.

We know we will be bored the rest of the time.

The alternatives are to either multi-task, or to reduce the total time of the meeting in order to reduce the down time. Multi-tasking is the meeting attendee approach to solving their individual wasted meeting time issue. Reducing the actual meeting time is the meeting owner approach to solving everyone’s wasted meeting time issue.

Conducting shorter meetings will take significantly more effort on behalf of the meeting owner, and by extension some of the attendees, but I have found that you can actually get more done in the meeting by taking this approach. And I think that everyone in the meeting appreciates that, since that is supposed to be the objective of the meeting in the first place.

Meeting Invitations

Let’s get one thing straight up front: I am not proposing to be any sort of Ann Landers when it comes to any sort of business conduct advice. I call ‘em as I see ‘em, and I try to base it on my personal experiences. And I am definitely not a Miss Manners when it comes to saying or doing the proper things according to some unwritten business protocol. I like to quote the Texas Comedian Ron White when it comes to describing myself: “I have the right to remain silent. Unfortunately, I seldom have the ability to remain silent.” However, today I may tread on the toes of the Mms. Landers and Manners, when I visit today’s topic, meeting invitations.

I think by this point it should be well known that I am not a particular fan of meetings. Any meetings. I believe that the current business climate has far too many meetings. And all of these meetings are invariably too long. I think that this meeting proliferation is a byproduct of the matrix organizational structures that are now the base-line organizational structure for so many businesses. I also believe that having meetings is an activity that sometimes confused with actual business progress.

Sometimes it appears that we are spending more time in meetings (actually not meetings, but what were once described as “conference calls”) making sure that everyone is aware of and aligned with the latest information and associated directions, than actually progressing in that chosen direction. These are calls where we go over what we have already gone over, with the possible exception of those pieces of the puzzle that may have changed or been incremented in, since the last time they were reviewed, if you know what I mean.

It appears that business has created something of a “meeting culture” where every meeting can hold significant importance and therefore anyone with what could be considered having even a tangential connection to the topic at hand should attend.

This brings me to today’s soap box.

If someone is invited to a meeting, that said meeting’s ownership does not automatically become partially theirs by the simple act of agreeing to attend that meeting. Meeting attendees should not presuppose the right to then invite any others to that meeting, just because they have accepted the meeting invitation.

This brings me to Rule One of meeting behavior:

“If you are not the meeting organizer, do not invite anyone else to the meeting without the express consent of the meeting organizer.”

If you have been invited to a meeting, good for you. If you truly believe that someone else should also attend due either to their topical knowledge, being a stakeholder in the issue to be covered, or just for comedic relief, you should reach out to the meeting organizer before forwarding that meeting’s invitation. There may have been an actual, viable reason that particular person was not invited to the meeting. On the other hand, they may have been genuinely overlooked and should attend.

The point is that you will not know for sure unless you ask first. It won’t take much time, and it may avoid future issues associated with the meeting.

On the other side of this forwarded meeting topic, if you are the recipient of a forwarded meeting invitation, there are two additional rules that you may want to follow. The first is:

“Ask the original meeting organizer if it appropriate for you to attend the meeting.”

After all, you were not directly invited by the meeting organizer. It would be a courteous thing to do to assure that your invitation and attendance is appropriate or desired. The second is:

“Do not feel that by having a forwarded invitation to someone else’s meeting you are appropriately empowered to forward it and invite still other people to the meeting.”

This is not a “more the merrier” sort of situation. This is how what were to be short and concise meetings become bloated, run long and lose much of their desired functionality. Again, if you have received a forwarded invitation to someone else’s meeting, when you are checking with the meeting organizer to see if it is appropriate for you to attend the meeting, you can then bring up the topic of additional potential meeting attendees.

Perhaps the meeting culture within business has progressed to the point where what we once viewed as a yes/no decision associated with attending a potentially germane meeting as a part of our position, has evolved to a position where it is now incumbent to attend all meetings that may somehow be related to our respective roles, as being now part of the greater defined job responsibility. Where it was once that we were relieved to not be invited to any specific meeting since it was then perceived that meetings got in the way of getting your job done, it appears that many are now genuinely disappointed if they are not on the initial meeting attendee list since it is now perceived that attending meetings is now a significant part of the job.

As you may have guessed by now, I have been involved (several times actually) in situations where I have scheduled a small meeting on a concise topic, only to have the meeting attendance balloon beyond normal recognition and the topics diffuse themselves to the point where progress is almost impossible. Now, I know that I don’t call many meetings, and that the ones that I do call are purposely kept short with a limited invitee list in order to drive both proper meeting behavior, and so as not to impinge on people’s limited availability of time.

I am beginning to believe that it is for these reasons that people seem to want to invite other people to my meetings.

Is it possible that there is some sort of cache associated with attending my meetings? Does their rarity and truncated length make them that much more desirable to attend? Do people get the same sort of satisfaction from attending one of my relatively few, short meetings, that would get if they were to get a reservation or access to one of those “in” bars or restaurants that it seems only the beautiful people get to attend.

There are no paparazzi skulking around my meetings ready to take pictures of the elite few that I have been invited to attend.

I am reasonably adept at calling and setting up meetings, as I am sure so many others are. If I had wanted other, or additional attendees to the meeting, I would have invited them myself. It really isn’t that hard to do.

So why does this happen?

I wish I knew. When I am invited to someone else’s meeting, the first thing that crosses my mind is not “who else should attend this meeting?”. It is more along the lines of “is this a functional meeting that I should attend, or not”. As I sit here, I am hard pressed to think of an instance where I have forwarded someone else’s meeting invitation either with or without their pre-approval.

On the other hand, I can usually count on seeing several more attendees than the number I have actually invited, at any meeting I set up.

Perhaps the greater change in the meeting culture of business is as I mentioned before: Meetings were once viewed as a necessity that usually got in the way of doing your job. As communications capabilities have blossomed, we seem all too eager to take advantage of the advanced meeting technologies available, whether we need to or not. Now what was once a necessity that got in the way is now perceived as just a necessity.

The perception seems to now be that if you are not in a large number of meetings, you are not busy. If you are not in all the meetings that could possibly impact your function, then you are not doing your job. As our abilities to meet and share information has grown, so has our desire to be a part of the meeting and sharing, whether we need to or not.

The matrix organizational structure, and the processes that must be in place to make it function effectively does require an increased amount of communication to make sure that the business can run relatively smoothly. Functional hand-offs require coordination. Coordination reduces the possibility and effect of “surprises”. These are obviously good things.

There comes a point in time where the business process and culture has become a meeting process and culture. A calendar full of meetings will then seems to be desired and aspired to, as opposed to limiting meeting attendance in favor of other functional activities. When that happens, it can seem that every available meeting has then become “open game” for whomever wishes to attend it.

You can tell that point has passed when meeting attendees start inviting other people to your meetings as a matter of course.

Meeting Volume vs. Meeting Value

I think I may have telegraphed this week’s topic with that title.

It is no secret that I have been looking at the topics of Process, Meetings and Virtual Offices and the effects that the changing norms for each of these topics have had on each other. As more process is driven into the business organization, the requirement to have more meetings as a part of the review process increases. As people who were once in the office now work from a virtual office instead of the brick and mortar organizational location, they attend more and more meetings “virtually”. Meetings are now really little more than what would once have been described as very large and elaborate conference calls. Against this new backdrop I can’t help but wonder if what was once a vital aspect of corporate culture and progress has become little more than an opportunity to answer emails and texts while partially listening to someone talk on the phone.

I think process has a place in business. It should provide guidelines and directions as to what potential next steps need to be taken in a given situation. This is probably particularly important in those disciplines that deal with crisis situations (such as critical system failures, etc.) or those that deal with repetitive situations where uniformity of approach, response and output are desirable.

I am sure that there are probably others, but for now a think that a little process guideline setting can go a very long way.

I have written in the past that process is invariably input into an organization as a replacement for judgement. The human brain, when properly applied, is a spectacular difference engine. It is capable of correlating seemingly unrelated inputs and creating leaps of faith and imagination that no process could ever hope to replicate. This is what “judgement” is.

And yet we continue to put more structures in place with the purpose of curtailing this capability. We continue to input more process into business as a replacement for judgement, and then react by trying to input even more process when it comes the time for good judgement, and there is none available.

One of the hallmarks of process is the requirement that there must be review meetings to make sure that the process is being followed. Otherwise, how could anyone be sure that the process even existed, let alone was being followed. These are events where everyone associated with the process attends, mainly it seems because the process indicates that everyone associated with the process should attend every process review.

Process review meetings are usually pretty large affairs. As we have increased the application of process to business, we have also increased both the number of meetings, particularly process reviews, and the number of attendees at those meetings.

Virtual Office arrangements have also contributed to the ever-expanding meeting numbers and sizes.

Back in the olden times, when people actually all went to a specific place to work together, it was usually somewhat apparent what everyone was doing and how busy they were. You could see them. You could see what they were doing. Even if you weren’t talking to, or directly interfacing with them you were at least peripherally aware of what was going on.

But now with the proliferation of Virtual Office arrangements, no one can be really sure what any of “those people” who are not in the office are actually doing. This phenomenon is also not lost on the people who are in the virtual office. So, what do the people in the virtual office do?

They attend more meetings.

There can be no doubt regarding someone’s work status when they are always in meetings. There is no question as to what they are doing if their calendar shows that they are attending a meeting.

Meetings have now evolved into a vehicle that allows the once “invisible” virtual office worker to not only be more visible, but to be more visible to many, many people. Since meetings have devolved from face to face events where you could see who you were talking to, to expansive conference calls where just the slides appear in front of you on your personal computer screen, and are addressed by a voice on the telephone, they seem to have grown in size.

That doesn’t mean that they are any more popular, or more useful. They are just more easily attended.

In a face to face meeting, it is readily apparent to everyone else in the meeting is doing. You can look over and see. Are they paying attention? Are they engaged? Are they making eye contact? Are they asking questions? What, if anything are they getting out of the meeting?

This is no longer the case.

We now have an ever-increasing slate of meeting attendees, most of which are no longer even in the same building as the meeting host. We have an increasing number of meetings, attended by an increasing number of people, for an increasing number of reasons. Just because we now have more people at these meetings doesn’t mean they are paying attention. Chances are more than pretty good that they are not.

The only thing that seems to be decreasing when it comes to meetings is the actual interaction that goes on during the meeting.

Since there is usually no one in the room with any particular presenter during a particular meeting, they are no longer presenting “to” anyone. They are presenting “at” them. And since there is no longer any direct ownership associated with the reception of the presented information, there seems to be fewer and fewer questions associated with what has been presented.

Meetings, events that were originally created to enable the two-way exchange of information, seem to have been reduced in importance and capability by the very technology that was designed to further enable the meeting’s reach.

I think that this has been an ongoing phenomenon for a while. I, like I am sure many of you, looked to see who is in virtual attendance at the meetings I attend. I then noted the number of questions that are asked. The number of specific items that are addressed. The number of dates that are selected or identified. The number of action items that have been taken, or given as the case may be. The deliverables that are to be expected. And the number of people who speak.

It seems that the actual number of any of the above listed events occurring during a meeting is going down. Meetings no longer seem to be events where discussion occurs. The give and take dynamic seems to have been lost as meetings have become more process driven and virtually attended. Meetings now seem to be designated times where slides are presented, and the most important aspect of the meeting is to make sure that it ends on time in accordance with the process that is being followed.

Meeting attendance seems to have evolved into some sort of barometer associated with individual activity levels and importance, where actual participation in the meeting, the value added in attending a meeting, has continued to decline.

Meetings used to be recognized as having a specific purpose. Meetings used to be designated as a face to face event. It took people out of their specific environments and put them in a meeting. While they were in the meeting they were not busy or distracted with other activities or demands on their time. There was a goal associated with the meeting.

As we have continued to implement more and more process into the business system we have generated more meetings to track our progress against the process. As we have virtualized our offices, so have we virtualized our meeting attendance. What was once a designated time to exchange ideas and leave with a goal achieved has evolved to a time to call and review charts on-line.

We seem to be meeting more, but getting less achieved at each meeting. In many instances, it seems that instead of having a goal, the meeting is the goal. Instead of challenging each other, due to the size and impersonal nature of virtual meetings, we are presented at. If we have issues or concerns, they are probably best handled off line.

In short, we seem to now attend meetings. We no longer participate in them.

I have yet to hear anyone suggest that they are not attending enough meetings. Perhaps it is time to participate instead of attend, and expect more from meetings. Asking and being asked questions, assigning and accepting the assignment of action items, and challenging as well as being challenged need to be expected parts of all meetings.

It is going to be through these attributes that value is driven back into meetings. The meeting needs to evolve away from its current spectator – presenter arrangement, and back to its original participant structure. Meeting minutes need to be taken at every meeting and distributed. If you are not going to be a participant in the meeting, you should not attend. You can read the minutes.

Reducing the number of spectator attendees, assigning and accepting action items, and delivering meeting minutes afterwards seem to be simple requirements. But meetings should be simple. They should be to exchange ideas and challenge each other. I think that is where the basic value in them lies. Not in the number of them that you have or attend.

Preparation

Okay friends and neighbors. It is time to look up. Cast your eyes skyward for I will be climbing way up on my soap box, my high horse, and anything else that I can orate from. It is time for me to emulate Don Quixote and joust one of my windmill like pet peeves: Preparation.

This is a topic that has been rattling around in my head for a while. I just didn’t quite know how to go about approaching it. I liken it to the general malaise that I feel has been permeating the business environment for several years. It is the feeling that not quite good enough is now good enough.

Let me provide an example.

There once was a time where it was unacceptable to have any issue whatsoever with your phone. This was a time before cellular service and mobile phones. The phone company was held to the absolute highest standards of reliability and quality of service. If you had a dropped call or a quality problem, it was addressed. You were paying for the best network and by golly you were supposed to get the best network.

Fast forward to the current mobile communications networked world. We have all experienced and have even come to expect dropped calls and garbled communications. It comes with the wireless territory. If you wanted the old network desk set reliability you would have called from a desk phone, or your home phone, or a pay phone. (As an aside, when was the last time anyone has seen a pay phone? They are gone.) Now as these wireless type technologies and capabilities are applied to our business and home communications networks in the name of cost reduction, we are now experiencing the same types of dropped calls, garbled communications and generally lower quality of phone service.

Business communications service and performance levels that would have gotten IT executives fired in the past are now the accepted norm. Money has obviously been saved, but not quite good enough is now good enough. In fact it is the norm.

So what has all this rant about networks and such have to do with preparation? Good question.

The idea of preparation was brought home to me the other day. Some of you may know that I am something of a would-be musician. I have told many people that the only thing keeping me from being a good musician is talent, or actually the lack of it.

Ron White, a very funny Texas comedian said “You can’t fix stupid.” I have definitely found this to be the case. Hard workers are great. Smart people are at a premium. The Steve Gobeli corollary to this statement is “You can’t learn talent.” I can learn all sorts of musical theory, styles and songs, but I will not be as good as those that were born with the musical gift.

But here I have truly digressed.

I was called the other day and asked if I would substitute for a regular band member who would be unable to play the gig. I was flattered and of course said yes. This was about six days before the gig.

I then started my preparations.

I got a copy of the set list so I would know what songs to play. I added about twenty minutes to my practice time to better familiarize myself with them. Things were going well.

On the day of the gig I left ninety minutes early because I knew that it would take me at least thirty minutes to get to the venue. I also knew that it would take another thirty to forty five minutes to load my equipment in and get it set up and ready to play. (In my world “roadies” are mythical beings. I have to haul my own amps and instruments.) I could then spend ten to fifteen minutes loosening up, relaxing and getting ready to play. At the appointed time I would be prepared, relaxed and ready to go.

It was interesting that the other guys in the band showed up about the same time I did. They did the same things. When it came time to start they were also ready.

We played for two hours. It was a blast. Even my wife said we sounded good. Strong praise indeed.

In business, for the most part, we know when our meetings are scheduled, what our roles in them will be and what the agenda is. When you think about it, it is a little bit like a musicians gig. The only difference is that in the new world where not quite good enough is now good enough if musicians performed their gigs like many business people are performing in their meetings, they would never be called back to play again.

Since meetings have evolved to where they are no longer really meetings, but more than likely conference calls, I can’t seem to remember when one actually started on time. People are late dialing in, switching phones because the one they are on is not working, hushing barking dogs, quieting crying children amongst other distractions, to the point where just getting the meeting started becomes a significant obstacle to overcome.

I am not saying that everyone needs to “practice” their parts in the meeting. What I am saying is that everyone should know what the meeting is about, have read the agenda and prepared for the role in it. If they are going to present charts, they should have located them on their computer, opened the presentation and been prepared to present them, instead of making everyone else wait while they perform these tasks.

In short, everyone needs to be prepared.

I have talked to other people in the office who have told me of the detailed preparations that they go through when they are getting ready for a game of golf or a ride on their motorcycle, or what they must go through in order to properly clean and wax their black corvette in the Texas heat.

I couldn’t make that last one up. He actually has a black plastic car in a place where the temperature regularly exceeds one hundred degrees Fahrenheit. According to him it requires all sorts of special cleaners and waxes because of the abundant (and hot) Texas sun.

These are just examples of how we prepare for events and activities (my substitute gig included) outside the office that we assign appropriate importance to. We know what it takes to play well in front of an audience, or get the paste wax shine on our car. We also know what it takes to be prepared for, and contribute to a meeting. We know when they start and what we are supposed to do.

Just like the audience lets the band know if they prepared for and performed appropriately, we need to start holding ourselves (and each other for that matter) to the same levels of preparation and performance in business. Not quite good enough in music is definitely not good enough. It sounds terrible.

But we seem to be willing to say that not quite good enough is good enough in business. We let it slide that the meeting started late, or that the slides weren’t ready or the attendees couldn’t respond to or answer the questions.

In most instances it’s not a question of talent. As I said, you can’t teach talent. For the most part I find most people in the professional environment to be very talented. I think it’s more of a question of preparation and the pride of performance in the public realm, or meeting as the case may be. In the new world of not quite good enough being good enough, it seems that it is okay to not be quite prepared enough for a meeting.

I find it to be frustrating, but then I guess I’m the kind of person that goes through the eight hours of preparation to play music and get paid only slightly more than minimum wage per hour for the “two hours of work”. I also invariably show up for meetings on time.

Meetings and Phone Calls

I don’t think that it is any sort of a big secret that I am not a great fan of meetings. I can remember way back into the dark ages when meetings were convened in order to reach a decision. Sometimes you counted the votes in an effort to achieve some sort of a democratic consensus in the hope that the combined input of all would result in the best decision and solution. Sometimes the votes were “weighed” where the boss’s vote weighed more than the sum total of everyone else’s vote combined. The point was that a decision got made.

Originally meetings were just that, a “meeting”. Webster’s Dictionary (one of my favorite books) defines the verb “meet” (as in to meet) as “to come into the presence of”. Meetings were defined as a physical presence event. They were held face to face. People came from all over to attend. Meetings were not taken lightly. You needed to be prepared. They were special times where the day to day grind was set aside, where reports were presented and decision were made. You looked people in the eye. Feedback was immediate and visible. Things got done.

This was back when everyone worked in a place called the office.

As time has passed we have virtualized our office. Technology now enables us to work in teams across time zones and around the world. This new approach has broadened our ability to work together, but it has also reduced our ability to have the physical presence that defined a meeting.

Instead we now have phone calls. When we have more than two people on a phone call it is termed a conference call. We seemed to have evolved to a place where we now consider conference calls to be “meetings”. As more time has passed it seems that these conference call – meetings have become more and more of an open discussion forum where the actual making of a decision and moving forward has taken a back seat to the ongoing discussion of the topic at hand.

I am convinced that at least part of the reason for the increasing ineffectiveness of meetings these days stems from the fact that telephone etiquette is different from meeting etiquette, and the ability and proclivity of people who are invited to the conference call – meeting to forward their invitation to the meeting to other people.

In short, technology advancements, virtual offices and the ability to invite ever increasing numbers of attendees to a meeting without the meeting initiator’s consent have conspired to cause the loss of control, purpose and value of a meeting.

In the past a meeting had a defined time. It started, had an agenda and it finished. Because of the effort involved for people to meet face to face it was a taken that there had better be progress, or resolution or a solution to the topic. The investment in time and people and travel made it imperative.

This is no longer the case with a conference call. On a conference call the only one really paying attention at any point in time is the person speaking. Because everyone else is usually busy and sitting at their desk, they are multi-tasking and doing something else while only partially attending the conference call – meeting. If nothing is accomplished at the meeting it is no great loss. It is easy to schedule another conference call and pick up where the last one left off.

The sense of purpose and requirement for conclusion is lost because it is no longer a meeting. It is a phone call.

A second contributory factor to the decline and fall of meeting effectiveness is the growing sense that it is alright for people who were invited to the meeting (now conference call) to invite other people to the conference call. What was once a manageable number of attendees, each with a specific role to play and deliverable to provide now seems to have blossomed into a search for consensus across anyone and everyone who could conceivably be associated with the meeting topic.

In the past when people actually met face to face this just didn’t happen. No one just “crashed” a meeting uninvited like some college fraternity party. In the time when you actually had to be at the meeting in order to attend it, it meant something to be there. You had to stop whatever else you were doing and go to the meeting. It was a very rare occasion where an incremental invitation was extended to someone who was not on the initial meeting invitation list.

It was even rarer when an incremental invitation was extended by anyone other than the person who called for, set up and owned the meeting.

Unfortunately this does not appear to be the case anymore.

Now I find with ever increasing numbers we have meeting attendees who are attending (actually dialing in to the conference bridge) who were not invited to the meeting. I see more and more electronic notifications that someone who was invited to the meeting has forwarded the meeting invitation to someone else.

When did it become okay to do this?

The only time that I could see this type of situation arise would be when an original meeting invitee can no longer attend and must delegate their responsibility with respect to the meeting to someone else. But here we have a one for one replacement, not an incremental attendee.

I liken the incremental invitation scenario to be similar to being invited to a friend’s house for a dinner party and arriving with several of your friends (who were not invited and the host may or may not know or have planned for) because you thought they would enjoy a dinner party and should be involved.

I have stated many times that I am probably old school in my approach to business. That does not mean that I will not embrace new technologies and business techniques. I will whole heartedly do so if I can see the value and improvement the new idea brings to the business. I understand the new virtual office and team structure. I see many of the benefits that it brings. I also see many of the detriments that it also brings.

There are many increases in productivity that can be directly traced to the new virtual structures. I think that there are also many decreases in productivity that have not been fully recognized yet in the new business processes that are resulting from these new structures. I think some of the loss of meeting productivity is one of them.

When we turn a business meeting into just one of several other telephone calls we start to devalue its purpose. We multi-task and no longer give it our full attention. When we start inviting, or allow others to invite more and more people to a meeting we are complicating the process and diffusing the focus, and again devaluing the meeting.

And all of this seems to be okay because if we don’t get anything done in this meeting, or on this call, we’ll just have another one. It is now so much easier to have a meeting, and so much easier to forward meeting invitations that allow us to bring more people than necessary together, that we no longer feel that the purpose, function and conclusion solution that were once the primary objectives of having a meeting to continue to be of primary importance.

In short, it appears that it is now so easy to attend a meeting, and we have so many people attending meetings, that we have devalued the purpose and objectives of having meetings. It seems as a result we are having more and more meetings attended by more and more people, and getting less and less done at each meeting.

What that means is the next time you get invited to a meeting, pay attention to the proceedings, insist that there be a definable outcome of the meeting, and don’t forward the invitation to anyone else for the meeting.

If we all did this we would all probably have fewer meetings to attend because we would get more done at the ones we actually went to.

Trade Shows


I don’t know why it has taken me so long to address the topic of trade shows. It must have something to do with the number of them that I have attended and the somewhat painful (read “aching”) memories they engender.  I can remember my then excitement at being assigned to attend my first trade show and to man my specific technology aspect of the corporate tradeshow booth. It has been many years, and many many trade shows since that first trade show. For whatever reasons I don’t seem to go to them nearly as often anymore, but that won’t stop me from discussing their usefulness to both the displaying company and attending individuals.



Trade shows are really expensive undertakings for businesses. There are registration fees, and floor space rental fees (usually by the square foot), and then there are the costs associated with the creation of the booth or display. If there are live products or demonstrations in the booth there is the cost of that equipment that must be added to the bill. There are the communications and connectivity requirements and costs. There is also the travel and living costs associated with the people who will man the booth as well as the salaries that they are paid while at the show. Finally there is an opportunity cost of what other things you could have been doing with all the money and people that were applied toward attending the trade show.




When you add it all up, like I said it gets very expensive. If you are going to spend that kind of money and commit those kinds of resources, one would expect that there would be a significant return on those investments.




At first I thought attending a trade show as an exhibitor was going to be an interesting business experience. Then I attended one. When I was contemplating the prospect of attending the show I had forgotten that I was going to have to stand on a concrete floor for eight to ten hours a day without the ability to sit down, dealing with the people who came into our booth, who may or may not have been customers or potential customers, or who may or may not have been competitors looking for information, and all the time look like I was enjoying myself.  This may be possible for the first day. It is very improbable to do for the entire second day. And darn near impossible to do for almost any part of the third or any subsequent days thereafter.




Then once the exhibit hall is closed for the night you would think that would be the opportunity to rest and recover for the next day’s ten hour booth march. That would be wrong. In most instances there was a corporate hospitality suite that you were expected to spend time in and be available for questions and inputs from executives or the sales team when they actually had a real customer available that wanted to discuss your product. This too could go on for quite a while, but at least there was usually a chair available where you could sit down from time to time. There was also usually food and drinks available, but like when your parents threw a party when you were a kid, it was supposed to be for the guests.




After you had done your time at the hospitality suite, and the crowds had begun to thin out, you could then go back to your hotel room. If you were lucky it was at the same location as the exhibit hall or hospitality suite. More than likely you had to go to another more distant location. You could then look forward to doing it all over again the next day. It was not quite as glamorous as I had initially thought it would be.




In looking at the relative value to the business of attending a trade show, it usually came down to what kind of a show it actually was. If it was an industry forum or association that was sponsoring the show, then the value was basically that of being an opportunity to use the forum as a platform for whatever product or business announcements that the company wanted to make. The actual number of “customers” that attended these shows was minimal and in fact most of the booth traffic was competitors strolling around looking at the competition and collecting each booth’s “trinkets and trash” that were being given away, and the industry press and writers strolling around asking a few questions so as to justify their attendance as well as collecting the trinkets and trash giveaways. The only way that a large exhibitor would be noticed at one of these shows would be if they decided to save the money and not attend. They would then be conspicuous only in their absence.




The more focused trade shows, be it regional or business aspect in nature were those where the exhibitors and attendees had more in common than just being in the same industry, seemed to have a little more value to the business in that the one incremental level more of specificity assures that there are attendees on both the demand and supply side of the trade show topic. These are typically the trade shows where business is actually conducted as opposed to the larger industry shows are basically announcement forums.




The bottom line was that it seemed that the larger the trade show, the less valuable to the company or its customers for business, but more the value for visibility. The smaller the trade shows the better for customers and companies to do business. The question for all companies and large tradeshows is: How valuable is visibility? What can companies now afford to spend just for “being there”? It is interesting to look at the reduction in the number of large technology industry trade shows over the years as companies have come to grips with this question.




For the individuals manning the booths at either of these types of trade shows, the value truly lies in the opportunity to network with people in the same industry. Making contact with suppliers, competitors and customers within both the appropriate technology and market segments may not provide immediate benefits but it will provide them longer term.




It took me a long time to learn this fact. Just trading and collecting business cards is a waste of time and your business cards. If you are going to make the effort to trade business cards, make the effort to follow up and reach out to make contact. It really doesn’t take that much effort. I wish I had learned this fact in time to put it into execution then. I didn’t, and those new contact opportunities were lost.




There is also the opportunity to reestablish connections and relationships with old friends and past business associates. In today’s business environment it seems that more of our friends move on to new opportunities with other companies. While industries may be considered very big, they are in reality reasonably small and tight knit when it comes to relationships. The ability to maintain older contacts and gain new ones has to be the primary value to individuals who attend tradeshows. That, and learning the ability to stand on your feet, smile and try to have intelligent discussions for ten hours at a time.




It’s been a while since I have actually attended or manned a booth at a trade show. It could be said that it has been so long since I have been at one that I might actually look forward to attending one in the future. I didn’t say that was the case. I just said that it could be said. Trade shows are much more work than anybody who has not been to one would believe. They are not the two drink minimum professional equivalent of a fraternity all-nighter that many have believed them to be. Maybe they are for some; it’s just that I never seemed to have the ability or where withal to be able to stand in a booth all day and then go out all night at one of these venues. However by understanding the value to both the business and the individuals who attend the trade show you will be better able to quantify the benefits to both by attending.

Stop Multi-Tasking

Despite the number of stories that are on the news at night telling us that the economy is starting to slowly improve, and that the economists are starting to see the beginnings of job growth, it seems we are all plagued by the same mantra at the office: We need to do more. It still seems that staffing levels are precariously low, and that the demands for more production and productivity are still as high as ever, if not higher. This has given rise to the new office buzz word, Multi-Tasking.




Please don’t get me wrong. I am not supporting the idea that everyone should be doing only one thing at a time, all the time, but it seems we have gone to the limit and beyond when it gets to the point when we are asking (or are being asked) to attend multiple calls or meetings at the same time and we accept.




How many of you have been in the middle of what you believe is a very important conference call and the crucial question has been posed, and you wait for the subject matter expert to respond, and you wait, and you wait and you wait. And finally someone realizes that they are the one everyone is waiting for, and they come on the line and say….




“I’m sorry, would you please repeat the question?”




They were doing something else. They could have been on another call. They could have someone else in their office. They could have been playing solitaire on their computer. It doesn’t matter.




They weren’t paying attention to the conference call that they had agreed to attend.




When I have mentioned this phenomenon to friends they are quick to defend the offender (in some cases themselves) with the statement that due to the number of meetings that they are requested / directed / ordered to attend that they must behave this way. I counter with the simple question:




Would you behave, or conduct business in this way if the meeting were in person, or was with a customer, or with your boss?




Invariably the answer is no, of course not. But it seems that it is acceptable for everyone else.




Two things concern me here. The first is in regard to the behaviors that we are fostering in business. It seems that it has almost become some sort method to feel indispensable by noting the number of calls, meetings and conferences that we have simultaneously. It seems that some feel compelled by the requirements of their job / boss to do this, but with others, I am not so sure.




The point here is that I think we need to change the statement from “We need to do more”, to “We need to do New”. By this I mean as we are requested to take on and perform new tasks, we must be willing to examine our own work load, and get rid of older tasks that may no longer be as useful as they once were, or may not be as useful as the new tasks we have been asked to take on. We each have a limited availability and we need to decide how we can best apply that limited availability.




We need to learn that sometimes we must say “no” when it comes to the ever increasing number of requests for our time. I have previously writing an article on the Value of “No”, and I think it is starting to apply more than ever.




My second concern is that we now seem to be trying to do our jobs without paying our full attention to any one thing that we are doing. Perhaps this is the reason that it seems that the number of people on any one conference call keeps growing. Is it possible that 30 people on a call paying attention half the time are as good as 15 people on a call paying full attention? I don’t think so.




We all have many projects or topics that we are working on at any one time. That is the reality of the world. My view is that when we try to work on two (or more) at the same time, just as when we try to be on two phone calls, or attend two meetings at the same time, we do not do justice to either of them, and we end up with an inferior output from them as a result.




We need to be fully engaged in whatever we are working on, whether it is a meeting, a call or a project, while we are working on it. If there is another demand, then we need to stop and get fully engaged on the new topic. If we try and stay engaged on one topic, while trying to engage on a new topic, we should expect to continue to hear, or sometimes to ask:




“I’m sorry, would you please repeat that?”

The Elegance of Travel

As the leader of your organization it is your responsibility to be both visible to the team, and to be where you are needed. This will necessitate travel. In some situations, a significant amount of travel. Do not delegate it. Get the ticket. Get on the plane and go.

 
Many people consider the concept of travel to be elegant. They associate it with the way it is portrayed on TV. I guess it depends on what your definition of “elegant” is.

Most of the time you will be leaving later in the day (so that you can get at least some work done earlier in the day). You will be arriving at your destination later in the day / evening (if you are traveling domestically. If you are travelling internationally there is no telling when you will be arriving).

You will travel on what amounts to a glorified bus with wings, except that it will be more cramped than a bus, with less leg room. There will be only stale, recycled air to breathe and no place to put your luggage. You will strive to get to the front of the line to board so that there may be room for your carry on bag because you don’t want to take the risk of losing you bag should you be forced to check it.

You will rent a small car, at night in an unfamiliar town. You will not be allowed to rent a
GPS system due to cost saving measures by your company. You will then try and locate an unknown hotel, in the dark, based on directions given to you by the stranger behind the car rental counter. Since this is the only map and directions you have, you will trust them implicitly.

Once you find the hotel, in the dark, you will rent a room. There are two types of rooms at hotels; Non-Smoking, and those that are uninhabitable. Hopefully you will have reserved the correct one. You will then hang up your clothes for the next days meeting and put your toiletries in the bathroom.

Here is where the “elegance” will come in. You will most likely order Room Service for dinner and start scanning the channels on the TV for anything of possible interest.

You will eat hotel food for dinner. You will sleep poorly in a strange bed. You will get up, eat (again, hotel food), rely on the directions from the stranger behind the hotel desk on how to get to your destination (hopefully on time), and try to navigate the rush hour in a strange town, amongst the friendly people on the road who have little to no time for people who do not know where they are going.

You will have your meeting.

You will then hurry back to the airport to try and return the car, get through security and get on your glorified bus in record time so that you can get home before
midnight so that you can get a few hours of sleep before your 8:00 meeting the next morning in your office.

 
Conference calls are good, but they are sometimes not a substitute for “being there”. It is your responsibility. Pack up and go.

And just smile and nod when someone reminds you about how much fun, and how elegant travel is.

Take Action…..Items

We have all been in meetings where it seemed there a lot of decisions being made and things were getting done. We all felt good about the progress that was being made. It was uncommon for everyone to feel this way, especially in a meeting. The meeting then adjourned and we all went our separate ways. We all waited to see the fruits of our labor – to see the things we decided get done. We waited and watched…..and waited….and waited.

But we seemed to see very little get done. It always seemed that the other guys did not get their jobs done. The funny thing was that the other guys were saying the exact same thing about you. Meetings are fine, but unless an individual has a specific responsibility it won’t get done.

The answer is to take Action Items at each meeting. Make sure each individual at the meeting knows what their going forward responsibility is before they leave the meeting. You also confirm it afterwards as well, when you publish the Action Items. By creating a reviewable public record of what was to be done you create a sense of ownership for individuals that may not exist for the group at a meeting.

It also helps get things done.