Busy? Let’s call another meeting!

I hate meetings, pure and simple, I have said it now!  I think that most meetings are a huge waste of time and I was refreshed to read the other day that others think the same.  In fact this piece set me thinking of my past as a senior university leader.

I hate meetings not just because I am introvert, and serious one at that, but because they rarely achieve anything and in my experience at least in the University sector are about the information cascade rather than real strategic decision-making.  In my experience decision-making is made by a very small group of University managers and is often strategically self-evident any way so needs little discussion, I should know because I was once one of them.  Consultation and debate rarely change in a meaningful way decisions that are made by these elite, although they would fiercely deny it as a truth.

My mother once said to me that you make a decision in an instant but spend hours, weeks or even years agonising over it and second guessing that initial instinct.  Malcom Gladwell is superb on this subject in his book Blink.  It is the same in universities where the elite (Vice Chancellors and their deputies of various types), make the decisions and rarely do those decisions change.  They manipulate consultation consciously and unconsciously, after all they have to seek a consensus from an academic body known for arguing about most things and prefer that consensus to be modelled on their own.  In fact I have only one concrete example in 26 years of academic experience of a VC changing their mind in face of academic debate.  It was Sir Paul Curran while he was VC at Bournemouth and he backed down in the face of academic opposition from Senate which in most Post-1992 Universities is only advisory.  For me it was a defining moment in a truly academically led regime, not without its faults don’t get me wrong, but such academic collegiate leadership at the highest levels is now rare in UK.  We have lots of good managers but true academic leaders are few.

I digress so back to my hatred of meetings.  There are those who love meetings and away days and the like, extroverts to a tee I am guessing.  I once was appalled to hear a colleague in a leadership meeting many years ago express their love of meetings: “gets me out of the office and lets me catch-up with the gossip”.  I want to be in my office analysing and writing, not wasting time on gossip after all I am a researcher at heart, and one who also enjoys his teaching despite being an introvert.  University meetings conflate three elements in my experience: (1) an important touch point for staff and teams (even an introvert accepts this); (2) information cascade and project monitoring; and (3) very rarely a decision point.

These three elements require very different things and most meeting chairs prefer to focus on the former two elements because in truth, except at the most senior levels in a university, few real decisions are actually made just referred up.  Call me cynical but in my experience this is the truth and also a source of huge irritation for those not part of the decision-making elite.  Isolating the first two elements from the other agenda is done at a chair’s peril because it exposes this, yet is essential to making meetings effective.

Now I have little positive to say for billionaire self-publicists like Musk, but the idea of him empowering people to walk out of meetings if they have nothing to contribute is truly awesome.  His idea of asking for meeting papers in concise prose and insisting the first 30 minutes of a meeting is devoted to silent reading of those papers is even better.  Banning slide presentation is fantastic to.  I would go further however and insist that all papers are hard-copy and phones and tablets are banned.  I used to have to attend a Leadership Team Meeting every fortnight with a large membership and a meaningless agenda driven largely by the information cascade.  The papers got so big and everyone had tablets so the move to electronic papers seemed sensible – to save the environment.  In fact attention at meetings fell and the length increased because most people got on with their emails and reading.  A cynic might say that it improved productivity, not of the meeting but in email response times!

Taking the information cascade out of meetings is perhaps the key challenge for any chair and to hold a meeting as a default is a logical solution since most delete corporate emails and bulletins.  While PVC at Bournemouth several years ago we set up a research blog as the information cascade and to replace static and tired information based web pages.  The archive became that resource over time.  The daily digest still pop’s into my email and I follow the links and read what I need.  I never managed to integrate this with a reduction in meetings however with an agenda focused on key decisions which is something I regret but could have been done easily in hindsight.  Open online discussions are something to consider.  The team outside my office door, who are not led by me, have stand-up meetings which is an interesting innovation and while PVC the most useful team meeting was a half hour over a coffee every Monday morning.  Called the prayer meeting by those who felt excluded (it took place in a campus coffee shop) it actually was useful as touch point each week for a team.  There are lots of innovations possible here with the aim of separating out the functional requirements for meetings as long as they are driven by a desire to reduce the total hours spent in such activity!  I would say that off course because my computer is where I want to be.

If you are a student reading this, then forgive the cynicism.  You are the next generation of meeting attendees and chairs and I beseech you to learn by our mistakes!

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