Anatomy of a Meeting

At some point in the future, I’m going to pass on. When this happens, I’m hopeful I’ll get a chance to see the Pearly Gates. Standing there will be Saint Peter, holding a clipboard. He’ll run his finger down a list until he finds my name and a conversation similar to the following will occur:

“Let’s see. Rogers, Steven.” He glances at me. “The one from Virginia, right?”

“Yes.”

After his eyes scan the figures next to my name, he continues. “Hmm. According to my records, you spent 35,000 hours in meetings during your earthly walk.”

“Thirty-five thousand?”

“Give or take, yes.”

“How is that possible?”

“Well, you worked for about thirty-five years in an office environment. You, personally, worked 250 days each year, counting the occasional weekend. Over the course of that time, you averaged four hours a day in meetings. Some days more and some days less. We’re not counting after hours church or non-profit obligations. We give a free pass for those.”

“A free pass?”

“Yes. You see, we don’t appreciate when time is wasted sitting around tables talking.”

I get defensive. “They were necessary. I had to do my job and work with others.”

“Yes, we agree. However, according to our calculations, you could have spent, let’s see here,” Peter references another sheet, “about 5,000 hours in those meeting and accomplished the same tasks.” I have no response. “So, my friend, before you enter the Heavenly Realm you owe us 30,000 hours of penance. Gerald here will escort you to the designated area, most likely an old, medieval castle or ramshackle abandoned house.”

“What do I do there?”

“Essentially, you’ll float around until your time is served. If there are any people nearby, feel free to occasionally bang on a wall at midnight or open and close a window during a thunderstorm. A few lucky souls get to scare kids on Halloween. Essentially, though, you won’t be doing anything but waiting.”

I frantically do some mental calculations. “Thirty-thousand hours! That’s close to three-and-a-half years.”

“Arguing will only makes things worse. Consider yourself lucky. You should see how long the lawyers, politicians, and Hollywood producers get.”

Based on the hypothetical discussion above, you may conclude I’m not much of a meeting guy. You’re right. I hate the things. This isn’t because I don’t see value in communicating with others or being part of a team. In fact, I believe a collection of diverse talents results in a better outcome than isolated decision making. My distaste is grounded in traditional meeting structure and the time-sucking norms that are considered “best practices.” In the following paragraphs, I’ve tried to describe a few of my pet peeves related to meetings. Before I continue, please know I am not without guilt. I have, on occasion, filled one or more of these roles.

The “Show Up Late” person. This individual perpetually runs about ten to fifteen minutes behind schedule. When he or she enters the room, they invariably say “sorry I’m late, please keep going and I’ll catch up.” Then they flip back to the first few pages of PowerPoint and, after a minute or so, ask “Can you explain item X on page one?” or “Could you remind me again of our objective?” Voila! The whole meeting starts again. These personalities are hard to manage because, usually, they are among the highest “ranking” attendees, and the other participants can’t tell them to go pound sand.

The “Read the Slides” person. This individual feels the need to read every word of every bullet on every slide while the whole room sits there and follows along. When I’m in these meetings, I try to be patient with the presenter. However, somewhere around the fifth page I’m about ready to scream “Please, I’m begging you, tell me what your question is or what decision you want me to make.” True confession: during my working days I occasionally left this type of meeting, went into the hallway, and called my wife to chat. To her credit, she’d recognize the tone in my voice and send me back to the meeting.

The “Let’s Review the Last Meeting Before We Start This One” discussion. Often, a continuous project or large decision requires multiple meetings to either monitor progress or settle on a course of action. Invariably, any gathering after the initial meeting involves a half-dozen or so slides reviewing the project/issue and recapping prior discussions/task assignments. I’m sure there are self-help books, numerous leadership classes, and a collection of YouTube videos recommending the obligatory rehashing of the past. Given a choice, I’d rather slide the end of a paperclip under my thumbnail than sit through this process.

The “Scope Creep” Interlude. We’ve all been a part of this. A team is discussing a certain issue, maybe a problem in operations, the performance evaluation process, or how to finance an acquisition. The group in the room is qualified to address the specific situation and for the first thirty to forty-five minutes a productive conversation ensues. Then, out of nowhere, someone asks “while I know this isn’t what we’re gathered to discuss, what do you folks think about cyber security?” Invariably, a lengthy conversation follows, with participants chiming in based on a novel they read, what their cousin’s company is doing, or some report on the news. The meeting runs over the allotted time and employees are late for the next one (there’s always another meeting), their kid’s pickup time, or lunch. The kicker is, no one in attendance is involved with the organization’s cyber security efforts or has any influence with those who do. I’ve personally seen this happen with subjects as diverse as a company’s post-merger business strategy, compensation policies, downtown parking, and toilet paper procurement. Please, stick to the topic.

The “I Don’t Have Anything to Add, But…” Guy. I use the term guy here because I’ve never seen a woman fill the role. In this scenario, a meeting is nearing a satisfactory conclusion. Questions are answered, conclusions drawn, decisions made, and a general good mood fills the room. Attendees are looking at the time, realizing they’re going to get out early. Then, one guy says, “This all sounds good, and I don’t have anything to add.” Everyone holds their breath during the slight pause following his words. “I will ask this, though…” Bingo. When the sentence is uttered, you can see the shoulders slump as everyone realizes the next twenty minutes are about to evaporate into needless detail or a reassessment of the same information in a slightly different form. I’m convinced this person exists to guarantee compliance with the irrefutable law of organizational behavior—all meetings, regardless of topic, size, or importance will automatically last for the entire time scheduled.

Yeah. Yeah, I know I’m a grump. However, I also know I’m not alone. For example, when I solicited input on this topic from a former Town Administrator, he provided a lengthy text message on the subject and made me laugh out loud. Unfortunately, because I try to keep this column suitable for all readers, I’m unable to quote his exact words. I know meetings frustrated my brother because he once outfitted a conference room with no chairs. His rule was the room could only be used for thirty minutes at a time. My best buddy has, time and again, shared observations on the topic while we’ve walked the golf course. I strongly suspect everyone out there reading is running through a mental inventory of their own quirks and frustrations related to the meeting culture. If you aren’t, all the power to you. If you are, feel free to leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you.

Steven Rogers’ novel Into the Room is available in paperback and on Kindle. If you’d like to order a copy, please visit Amazon or his website:  https://steven-rogers.com/

January News from Steve

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Thank you for reading!

7 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Meeting

  1. This is so funny and true at the same time. While I thankfully was not in a position to attend many of these meetings, I certainly dealt with the ramifications for every person I ever worked for. You nailed this on the head.

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  2. A spot on and hilarious description of the dreaded meeting. As I was reading I particularly enjoyed the description of the “I don’t have anything to add but… guy” making sure all meetings last at least the allotted time.

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  3. As usual, a good read Steve. I had to laugh when reading this tome. How many meetings I attended over my working life that I sat there wondering why are we meeting?! Quite often, meetings were meetings for the sake of having a meeting. I actually attended meetings to plan for other meetings! Go figure. At the end of the day, I’d say that meetings follow the Pareto principle to a tee; 20% of the meetings attended yielded 80% of meaningful results. All others? Thanks for bringing me flashbacks of meeting angst 😬.

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