Meetings and meaningful work

  • by helga
  • 26/01/2013

Let’s start with meetings. Last week I went to a 3h workshop/training about how to chair and organise better meetings (yeah, these workshops do exist!).

As a natural meeting-hater, I thought that looking at the problem from a different angle could help – if some meetings are a necessity, let’s at least try to make them as productive as possible.

At the workshop, we looked at ‘the perfect agenda’ (which MUST include time slots for each subject otherwise the meeting can get dragged and objectives muddled), the ‘perfect chair’ (which must, above all, be a good listener and not try to use the meeting to impose their own views and agenda), and the ‘perfect meeting’ itself – objective, on time, disciplined, achieving what it was set to do, and releasing everyone from ‘duty’ as soon as possible.

I know there are many other people who abhor meetings, others that don’t mind them, and the last group which, like me, HATE meetings. I think this TED Talk probably summarises the latter stance: Why work doesn’t happen at work. Personally, I think meetings happen in most workplaces because of: a) a need to maintain the status quo; and b) to break the day in smaller, more manageable units that make time ‘disappear’ more quickly (even if you haven’t achieved much at the end of the day!).

In the TED talk mentioned above, Jason Fried touches an important point about why certain types of work and/or certain types of people don’t go well with meetings. Usually, creative work involves large stretches of uninterrupted time in order to achieve something. And I mean creative work really in the broader sense: basically having a problem that you need to solve where you need to use creativity, mixing any sort of ‘mind ingredients’ to do so.

You need time, sometimes empty time, to think about problems,  to research, to mix ingredients, to try, to draw and redraw. If your day time, when you were supposed to work, ends up being chopped in small units where you have 15min here to read something, 1h there to have a meeting about something else, and 30min there to have a ‘regular catch up’ just because it’s in the diary, then when are you supposed to do any meaningful work that produces your desired output?

And here was when another part of the workshop brought a new light to the subject – making me realise what different people may mean with meaningful work.

In the workshop they showed a graph like this, with two axis for the defining traits of those managing or attending meetings:

While some attendees are more people-oriented, others are more task-oriented. This will come across in different attitudes, reactions and overall personalities while conducting a meeting or as a participant. This leads, in turn, to four core types of people:
  • Teddy bears care very much about people and put their focus (conscientiously or not) on everyone feeling happy.
  • Owls care about people too, but they also care about the task at hand. This is what everyone wished to be during a meeting, but it’s not always achievable because of different personalities and agendas.
  • Tortoises are kind of low on both people and tasks, but they tend to be persistent and stable.
  • Sharks are focused on tasks but have terrible people-skills, so this may make a meeting counter-productive as well.

I think the types above could apply not only to meetings, but also to what meaningful work means to each person.

Take the example of a creative type, a software developer that needs to solve a new problem and spends 24h non-stop focusing on little lines of code, on her/his own, testing and debugging. They’re totally focused on the task and find this the exciting thing, the meaningful work. So she/he, as a shark, would only have the absolute minimum amount of meetings to ensure the job gets done correctly, as per the client’s requirements. However, if such few meetings are focused on clear objectives related to the task, they should still feel very satisfactory and successful, right?

No, not quite right, because on the other hand you can have owls and teddy-bears in the same meeting. Those who derive more satisfaction from the human interaction factor itself, regardless of the task  – either because they need it to satisfy their ego, or because they are very social-oriented and truly people’s-persons -, will always be seen in an antagonistic light by sharks. Meaningful work for teddy-bears and owls is inter-dependent with the ability to have more social interaction, which unfortunately in many organisations is only enabled by this odd corporate concept of a ‘meeting’.

What can be done about it?, she thinks aloud…. how can everyone be happier and be able to get on with what they find truly meaningful work?

Here’s a suggestion: how about taking one of the sides, upfront:

  • allocating 1 day of your week to meetings, and 4 days to ‘getting the job done’; or
  • allocating 4 days of your week to meetings, and 1 day without meeting (even if that makes you feel slightly bored and without a purpose)

You should clearly define which side you’re on and block the days in your diary. Full stop.

In this way, those who do like meetings end up having the amount of meetings they want (most of the times with similarly-minded people), and those who are more inclined to having long stretches of ’empty’ time to get a job done are not forced to have more meetings than absolutely required.

Anyway, just a suggestion. Now I’m off to cook and have a meaningful meeting with my food. Happy weekend everyone!

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