Each morning at my previous job, as a Department of Defense Program Manager, we had a “sync” meeting at 8am. This meeting was intended to allow our Operations Officer and the department to stay up to date with the activities of each sub-element and was scheduled to last half an hour.
It very often ran over its allotted time and if not traveling, I loathed attending it.
For varying reasons, the information I had to pass was irrelevant to 95% of people in the room. Equally important, the information they passed to the Operations Officer was about 95% irrelevant to my staff and I.
On the glorious but rare occasion in which the meeting was cancelled, it gave me an immediate euphoria knowing I could reclaim that precious half hour.
All previous attempts to psych myself up for the meetings had failed. I tried everything. Sadly, neither using internal humor nor invoking a sense of professionalism, allowed me to look forward to it.
At this point I should let you know that this had gone on every weekday for over five years.
Historically, with different Operations Officers, these meetings had also been used for other agendas (in addition to “syncing” information).
Some examples of these incorporated agendas: mandatory 10 minutes’ discussions designed for junior professional development, lectures on Articles of the US Constitution, historical daily significant events, and brief training evolutions (nutritional advice, body language, French, and Computer Security being some of the better ones I recall).
I had made it known to those in my circle of trust that I thought the meetings were a complete and utter waste of time… until this next event happened.
THE MOMENT IT HIT ME
I still laugh and use the following as a training tool. But allow me to take a moment and set the stage.
There was a rather entertaining employee within our shop who serves in the position of Information Management Officer. I’ll refer to him as Richard.
Richard was in charge of the set up and maintenance for all departmental meetings and he relished his role.
Due to his extroverted personality and his passion, Richard could always be counted on to do one of two things: attempt to lighten the mood and/or offer an opinion. Often he’d do both, which just added to the overall enjoyment of my daily wasted half hour.
One of Richard’s many responsibilities was the maintenance of the Microsoft Outlook/SharePoint calendars for the VIPs on our staff. This ensured our department functioned seamlessly in the scheduling of the multitude of meetings, video teleconferences (VTCs), etc. the shop relied on to run efficiently.
This morning’s meeting was going EXACTLY like every other, except it had the extra bonus of being on a wet boring Monday and was the first meeting our boss was attending upon return from a multi-week trip out west.
Everyone had their chance to sync and it came upon Richard, sitting in the corner, to brief the week’s upcoming events. Typically, when it was Richard’s turn, everyone in the room woke up in an effort to ensure he hadn’t signed them up for a meeting for which they are either unprepared or unwilling to attend.
I was glancing at the upcoming week on the projector screen when the guy beside me leaned over and asked “what’s the 2 hour ‘SGO’ meeting starting at 2pm?” I shrugged and looked to Richard for an answer.
Before I could ask Richard announced to the room the Commander had killed the ‘SGO’ meeting as he didn’t need it that week.
Still attempting to place the acronym and not wanting to admit my ignorance of it, I was ecstatic when someone else asked him what it was. Richard seemed to be expecting the question and with a straight face replied “‘Shit Going On’. I didn’t know what else to name the boss’s new weekly update brief and ‘SGO’ sounded official”.
As everyone in the room gave Richard the expected chuckle it hit me that this was a perfect example of something our shop was doing incredibly wrong. Not only were we wasting everyone’s time, precious time, but we had instilled within our shop the misperception that meetings were both productive and integral to the smooth operations of our undermanned and overworked department.
I went home at the end of the day chewing on the fact I knew something was wrong with the mentality of our shop and intent on finding a solution.
I’m well known amongst my colleagues for the statement “I was having a cigar last night,” and following that statement with something I view as a near epiphany.
Jake Breeden says in his phenomenal book Tipping Sacred Cows; Kick the Bad Work Habits That Masquerade as Virtues “Meetings are ritualized collaboration, with more talking about the work than doing the work… To lead more accountable collaboration, you’ll need to seek out lazy collaboration by default and eliminate it. Then ruthlessly destroy the teams that exist without a clear purpose and the meetings that happen without an important point.”
Why were we all gathering at the door the conference room at 7:50 each morning waiting for the Operations Officer to arrive so we could all blindly “sync” with each other? Why were we wasting everyone’s time with 30 minutes of updates that weren’t valid to anyone other than maybe the department head?
Why couldn’t each lead have a 5 minute “mini-meeting” with the Operations Officer to get him up to speed on progress they were making? Why were we stuck on a system that many (if not all) knew was ineffectual and inefficient? Why were we promoting lazy collaboration rather than attempting to eliminate it from all possible venues?
You may notice that each question above starts with the word “why”. I believe “why” to be one of the most feared words for a manager or leader to encounter as typically they don’t have an immediate answer.
I used to tell my direct reports when I ask them anything starting with “why” they need not start their answer with the word “because”. I know the words that almost always immediately follow “because” consist of something along the lines of “we have always done it that way.”
It will most definitely be some variation of an excuse.
TIP SACRED COWS
Paradigms can be broken, and if the consensus is that they need to be broken, a shift need occur as quickly as possible.
One of my all-time favorite quotes is from the book Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier-Hansson in which they offer up this opinion: “Meetings are toxic as they often include at least one moron who inevitably gets his turn to waste everyone’s time with nonsense.”
I couldn’t agree more. I now understand why we were having these meetings: because we had always done it that way.
Today’s marketplace is too volatile to let inefficiency reign over you.
Realize what you or your organization are wasting time on and stamp it out with a quickness.