Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Meeting'd up?

The WSJ the other day had an article on how some companies are handling boring meetings. A Rochester, NY, ad agency is supposedly arming their employees with water pistols and instructions to

... spray colleagues who pass negative remarks, an effort to quiet naysayers and foster more participation at meetings...

Wonder how they define "naysayer"...

Is it someone who craps all over everyone and everything? Or someone who raises questions about stupid ideas, challenges false assumptions, and points out "facts" that are ginned up out of thin (or hot) air?

In either case, I don't see this 'Fire when ready, Gridley' idea working out all that well. Woe to the first employee to take a pot shot at the supposedly good humored boss! Which Lauren Dixon may very well be.

..."It helps [employees] be more comfortable because no one will be criticized or scrutinized," says Lauren Dixon, the marketing and advertising firm's chief executive.

Protecting folks from being criticized or scrutinized? Who's the arbiter who interprets comments and decides whether the person or the idea is being 'criticized or scrutinized.'  Because not letting anyone 'criticize or scrutinize' an idea sounds to me like the fast track to business failure.

Someone should be able to shoot down bad ideas without getting shot at, and it's actually possible to do so without being rotten and mean spirited about it. And wouldn't people rather work in a culture where it's okay to criticize ideas, and to take criticism about ideas. (A bit off topic  - but, hey, it's my meeting - but this reminds me of a completely idiotic brochure that Genuity came up with at one point. I can't remember the exact words, but the gist was 'Ideas are the greatest force in mankind. They are to be extolled to the heavens. There is nothing more wonderful than an idea.' I had been asked to review the copy draft for the accuracy of the technical sections, but I couldn't help reading the entire piece, and observing that history was riddled with plenty of bad ideas....My comments were ignored, and the brochure was published  - with a brushed aluminum cover with edges sharp enough to slit your wrists with. Which never happened because the brochures cost to much to mail out... If I had offered my comments at a Rochester ad agency review meeting I would, no doubt, have been drenched.)

Some of the better meeting ideas mentioned in the article weren't bad - a couple of brainstorming ideas; something called

...Mindjet Catalyst that allows employees to write out the talking points of the meeting as they are being discussed. They can then easily manipulate the text, organizing it by category and subcategory.

I don't see how this helps all that much with the boring aspect of meetings, but it does look like it could improve the productivity element.

Other than the squirt gun idea, the oddest thing mentioned was something called the "Bring TIM (Time Is Money)," from Bring TIM LLC, which is a clock cum calculator that, based on the average salary of the attendees, shows you just how much a meeting is costing, à la those billboards that show the federal deficit. (As an upside, if a meeting's small enough you could figure out what everyone else makes...)

Sure, Time Is Money if everyone sticks to their regular work hours with punch-clock regularity.

But in the world I've long inhabited, if meetings got in the way of your getting your work done, you figured out how to get your work done. (Nobody makes overtime, and don't get me started on 'comp time.')

Not that a lot of meetings aren't a colossal bore and spectacular waste of time.

I've worked for a couple of companies - Wang and Genuity come to mind - where going to meetings was a good part of my job.

Genuity was so meeting'd up that they served breakfast, lunch, and snacks because it was entirely possible to be in back-to-backs that ran from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m and beyond. You were lucky to get a bio-break. It reminded me of high school: bell rings, pick up your books, consult your schedule, head to your next class. Some of the same kids were in your next class, too, so you had someone to walk to the meeting with.

The worst Genuity meetings were those that were part of the process initiative kicked off once the company became part (sort of) of Verizon.

Directors and VPs were supposed to attend these meetings, but we all learned to delegate our way out of the dreadfulness. So did the delegatees. In the end, I believe the attendees were primarily security guards, cleaning people, and the caf staff - all of whom, no doubt, were happy to be off their feet and having a nice mid-afternoon cookie for themselves. Process/smocess.

Certainly no surprise that neither Wang nor Genuity's still around. (Hmmmmm, maybe if we'd had a TIM clock....)

The TIM gadget does make a good reminder to keep meetings productive, and I'm sure it will be scooped up by a lot of folks - if only as a gag gift.

They should also consider expanding their product line to include a BS detector, for when someone is really slinging it. A jargon-ectomy device would be good, as would a cliché-remover. For a brief time, I worked for a guy whose meetings demanded all of these items. My boss - the head of sales and marketing - would create sales forecasts out of whole cloth, then start rambling on about how he was going to 'run 'em up the flagpole,' and give it 'some Kentucky windage.'

Fortunately, he didn't last long, but his meetings were pure torture.

Another product-line extension might be the 'praise predictor', which would gauge who was going to be singled out for recognition. Would it be the world's foremost toady? Or, if your company has the 'employee of the month', would it figure out the sequence.  (Let's see: last month they picked a woman in accounting; this month, let's go for a guy in IT.)

A finger-pointing blowback machine would also be good. Every time a manager tried to throw one of their reports under the bus, a mighty wind - or a torrent from a fire hose - would flatten them.  This device could also be used on the credit grabber, and would work best with an add-on that alerted the person who's credit was being grabbed (if they weren't at the meeting to hear it for themselves).

Yep. Bring TIM is definitely on to something. If they decide to implement these new products, there'll never be a boring business meeting again.


John said...

The squirt gun idea brings this to mind:
"Hey, maybe we shouldn't give mortgages with no money down to people who can't afford them."
Squirt - squirt - squirt.

We did a whole "meeting training" class that everyone who organizes meetings had to attend, with company meeting rules that included: you must send an agenda with a meeting invitation. You must start and end on time. Everyone has explicit permission to decline any meeting without an agenda. you must have the projector, video conference, conference bridge, etc. set up BEFORE the meeting start time. Etc. It did work, though it's pretty boring next to a squirt gun, but it all faded after a while. (There were also "tip jars" in the confrerence rooms, and everyone was supposed to put a buck in if they were late, which was then donated to a customer who is a medical charity.)

Dull stuff but it had an impact - unfortunately not a lasting one.

valerie said...

Comp time is the imaginary friend of the tooth fairy.

Thomas Rogers said...

In one of our consulitng roles we view white collar producitivity (also part of my gradute research) and it is our humble opinion that "good" companies are about 5%efficient in adding value to the product. So a bad company with a 1 or 2% efficiency is easy pickings to double its white collar productivity. Meetings may not be a waste of time, they may actually keep idiots amused and away from further damage to the production of goods or services.

Thomas Rogers said...

PS. I ran my last organization for 11 years and held only three or four formal meetings. We did Management by Walking Around and held meetings in the hallway or someone else's office while at least some of the attendees stood duirng the whole meeting and it was over when I just walked out. Maybe I was one of those crazy managers.