Meetings! Are yours on-task or off-topic?

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Waiting for a Southwest flight one evening, I struck up one of those easy boarding area conversations with a middle-aged business man. At the time, he was surfing through the email folder on an expensive iPhone. Whether I made the first comment or he did is lost in the detritus of travel. Somehow, we got on the topic of meetings. I offered, “Oh, meetings, where anything takes three times longer than it should.” He laughed and said, “Yes, I was supposed to have one today with my staff, but when they showed up without an agenda, I told them, ‘You are not ready, so I am out of here.’” In that brief exchange, we touched on two of the bete noir of 21st century business, meetings with too much an agenda, and those without any discernible purpose. Meetings in many organizations become an artificial gathering intended to accomplish much but often resulting in utter confusion.

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Meetings, as a subspecies of business interactions, have spread their time-gobbling tentacles in the decades since “communication”, “collaboration”, and “collegiality” became watchwords in industry and business. Time was, before my time, when a few well-tailored suits met in relative secret and dispensed ideas, criticisms, and staff juggling innovations like corporate confetti. Their memo-typed decisions titled “New Policy”, “Staffing Changes”, or “Quota Alerts” rained down on employees who read and obeyed without recourse or comment.

We’ve evolved since then. Office meetings have become one of industry’s new religions, prayed to in unison by administrators, supervisors, and workers alike. If meetings constitute a religion, then communication is god, an upper case ritual. Like in any religion, the fine print of regulation is rarely read and the basic principles are easily ignored. In those good ole days of top down management, perhaps too few people were making decisions. Bottom up process results in too many, leading to the spread of conference room viruses and epidemics, a selection of the most egregious being, “Anything but the Work,” “Yatta, yatta, yatta,” “That Darned Elephant,” and “St. James Maze.”

I’ve been in both meetings and classrooms where a deviation from the norm can become the trigger for a spiral into chaos. A dropped pencil leads to a giggle, leads to a retort, then a hand gesture, then the sound of a passing gasberry erupts as the student reaches over to retrieve the pencil, and so on and so on ad migraine. In school, the teacher tries to pull students back to the task at hand. A student argues that he or she wasn’t “doing anything.” Another accuses the teacher of picking on them. And so it goes. “I positively dread allergy season,” one teaching friend informed me. “Every sneeze is an “Open Sesame” for an instant transition from work to whoopee.”

If only the syndrome were restricted to children. Without an observant and slightly militant facilitator, any planned staff meeting can devolve into a

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classroom management disaster. However, the truly skilled facilitators can read the signs of incipient digression and redirect the talk with a single phrase. “I understand your point, but to we need to return to the agenda at hand.”

Without a master (male or female) at the helm, a corporate meeting often mirrors a Freshman English 1 repeater class with chilling similarities. Too often, these gatherings become a venue for everyone who can get the floor to disgorge a battery of verbiage on a chosen agenda item. Co-mingled with the “on topic” commentary is a wealth of off-the-cuff and off-topic discourse, usually steered by a personal, departmental, or political agenda. You have suffered through such gatherings, hoping that someone’s harangue doesn’t cause the meeting to run over and make you late picking up your kids, going to lunch, or finishing the report your boss is tapping her foot over. Drawing on group memory, the congregation moans silently as the “Yatta, yatta” mouth takes the stage. Strategies are devised to block this speaker from gaining a spot on the meeting plan, but alas, this personality type is Fred Astaire dexterous at side-stepping all attempts to deflect or muzzle. Were Freud or Jung looking over my shoulder, they would no doubt expostulate pas de deux “Passive Aggressive”, and they would be right. “Yatta, yatta” commits no violence, except against schedules and time management, offers no insult, again, except against process and clarity, and takes no prisoners, well, that isn’t strictly true either.

Another demon that worms its way into a well-planned meeting is “That Darned Elephant”, a regurgitation of an insolvable problem that pockmarks the issues to be covered, rendering them diffuse and dis-empowered. In the California school system during the oughts, “That Darned Elephant” was the state budget and its criminally disastrous impact on schools. Any meeting could be taken over by the trumpet of the elephant. It echoed throughout the space, spouting truth, yet creating confusion, and pulling workers from their purpose and mission. Imagine if the survivors and rebuilders of New Orleans had taken a meeting and simply groaned, “But everything’s gone. It is all ruined! Nobody’s left.” There is no progress to be made out of a focus on devastation. Landmark Education’s business development arm helps organizations take their game to a higher level, and, cautions that “…there is no possibility in desperation or despair. Possibility arises out of a clearing, a space for something new to grow.” Discussions of the elephants that sometimes live or used to live in our midst is counter-productive because they take up the very space we need for new ideas.

Casseroles dominated the weekly menu in my parents’ house in the fifties and sixties. With a family of seven and a limited budget, my mother found that planning ahead was a mind-easer and a money-saver. She drew monthly calendars with each day’s dinner menu spelled out, from soup to dessert. That part of her domestic initiative worked well. The casseroles, not so much. Not an intuitive cook, Mom believed a casserole was the same as a jumble drawer, if it could fit, put it in. It is a testament to the strange and arcane concoctions she came up with that I will not to this day eat anything I can’t identify, and nothing that constitutes animal innards. Okra, tomatoes, onions,..sound okay so far, with green peppers, kidney beans, hamburger, capers, and potatoes, plus parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. Aargh. But enough of the metaphor. A meeting should have direction and expected results. Multi-directional works fine in antennas, not so with meetings.

Planners who treat the weekly meeting like a Swedish smorgasbord will find indigestion rampant among the participants. Keep it simple stupid is not just a slogan for AA, it is a mantra for life. Copy All emails, phone calls, office drop-ins, and reports are a few of the myriad ways problems, ideas, and planning can happen in an organization of any size. Employees and managers have a tsunami of input coming in every day. So, when the group finally gets together, meetings with structure, boundaries, a minimum of extraneous speech, no elephants, and a clear direction will be a breath of fresh air.

Writer, ESL instructor, editor, traveler, seasonal ex-pat— my life is both an intentional and serendipitous circumstance. Motto — “Buy the ticket, and go!”

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