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Why have a meeting when we could get some actual work done?

We've all heard people say it, "I've got work to do. I can't waste time in a meeting". Maybe we have all said something similar from time-to-time. We are not sure why we have been invited to a meeting and we are certain that it will be a waste of time. "I'm so busy and 'they' expect me to waste half the day in a meeting. How can I get my job done?"

There must be a disparity of thinking here. The person that invited you to the meeting clearly thought that you would either be valuable to the meeting or you would learn something. Sure, there are a number of idiots around in the work place who don't think and just invite everyone to their meetings but generally most people do spare a few seconds thought before issuing invites and from their perspective it makes sense to invite you. So the question is: what is the difference between their thinking and yours?

In my experience (I was Managing Director and co-founder of one of the leading speech recognition companies in the UK for 20 years) one of the reasons people resent being invited to meetings is that their perspective is much narrower than the person inviting them and there is imperfect communication to help them understand.

With each level up in the company your perspective, the things you are aware of, widens. You can see a bigger picture. Conversely the closer you are to the grass roots of the company the narrower your perspective. Let's say your manager invites you to a meeting. From his point of view it makes perfect sense. From your point of view it makes no sense at all. It's just another crazy thing that management does to annoy you.

Getting large numbers of people to work coherently towards a common goal is a tough challenge. Communicating the goal to everyone is difficult enough but getting everyone to cooperate is even more difficult. One of the biggest issues is that compromises have to be made between different job functions. In order to do one thing remarkably well it may require that another part of the business has to jump through hoops to make it happen. If the people in the hoop jumping department don't understand why they are being asked to do these crazy things then they will be demotivated and disenchanted. If their perspective were wider and they could understand why something had to happen then they would be more effective and happier to help out. 

For example let's say the marketing team need the product to work a certain way. If the development team is not told why then they are going to think that it's just another nutty thing the marketing team want which will (from the dev team's point of view) make the product crap.

So what happens? Someone higher up the company invites some of the dev team to a marketing meeting. The dev team from their narrower perspective think it is a waste of time, they don't listen and leave the meeting none the wiser and further behind on their schedule. Whose fault is it? Well the person with the wider perspective needs to explain to everyone concerned why they are being invited and that the goal of the meeting is to help widen everyone's perspective so that they can work better as a wider team.

Maybe part of the problem is the job description. Often the job description for each role describes the key parts of the job but it doesn't mention explicitly the other parts of the job which is that everyone in the organisation needs to understand what the company as a whole is trying to achieve. Each person needs to have a view of the company that is broader than just their part in it. This takes time and often people feel that they can't spare the time to learn what is happening elsewhere in the company. Unfortunately it is quite hard to measure the benefit of spending the time to do this learning. It is the company leaders that need to set the culture and encourage this broadening of view.

As the meeting attendee just knowing that there may be a perspective widening reason for you being invited can help. Here are some tips to help you be a better corporate citizen and to get more out of meetings:

  1. Ask why you are being invited. Often your manager won't explicitly think that he is inviting you to widen your perspective. He is just following his gut feel that you need to know what is going on and why. If there is no clear reason for you being there ask if you are being invited just to ensure you are aware of what is happening elsewhere. 
  2. Reframe the way you look at meetings. Sure it is taking you away from the stated tasks on your job description but if you decide to change your view and approach the meeting with a mindset of curiosity and active learning you will find that you rarely feel that a meeting has been a waste of time.
  3. Shut your mouth and listen. Work hard to understand why people are saying what they are saying. Go into the meeting and resolve to only ask questions and not express your opinion unless asked to do so. Here are some example questions you could ask:
    • I'd like to understand that better, please tell me more.
    • Could you tell me the reasoning behind that?
    • What other options have been explored?
    • Silence. Don't say anything just nod and smile. They will then typically elaborate further. Yes, it counts as a question because it works to further your understanding.

 After the meeting it is worth while to mention to the meeting organiser what you got out of the meeting and why. Also you should note parts of the meeting that you didn't find valuable. If you talk to the organiser and let them know what you found useful and what you didn't then they will often modify their behaviour and invite you to appropriate meetings and leave you out of others that are not appropriate. If you don't talk to them they won't have an opportunity to change their behaviour.

Finally, if you are really spending time in meetings that are not helping achieve what is on your job description and if your manager thinks that the meetings are worth doing then maybe you should get your manager to change your job description so that you can be rewarded for your attendance at the meetings rather than punished for not getting your "real" job done.

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