Meetings and the Event Horizon: 6 Ways to Avoid the Perils of Productivity Black Holes

The other day, I had the tortuous experience of sitting through a surreal form of office space limbo called the modern meeting.

Did you know that in nature, if you get close enough to a black hole, theoretically you pass a point of no return where even light can’t escape?

That’s called an event horizon, and it has an analog in business.

And it will be the death of us all.

The meeting singularity knows no boundaries. Its cold, calculating and indiscriminate. If there is even the smallest hairline fissure in your general expectations of management, before you know it – the ship buckles, and attention span vaporizes in a cloud of brainfarts.

There are no escape pods.

That my friend, is a terrible fate.

In the early stages, this lack of focus can be totally innocent. Yet if left unchecked it will metastasize into a whole host of other potentially critical business issues like morale and bureaucratic friction. If there are experienced or influential people around the table, it costs you credibility.

Unprofessional behavior adds cost.

As such, in order to safeguard yourself from being ambushed by a galaxy swallowing meeting, you really should apply meeting vetting criteria.

Lets load for bear, shall we?

The Six Rules of Meeting Validation

All meetings that I attend need to adhere to the following universal guidelines. Sometimes there are exceptions to these rules but I try to make sure exceptions are few and far between. Much of this came from the excellent book Rework, which I strongly recommend.

1. The Rule of Minimal Viable Meetings

The first rule of having successful meetings is to have as few meetings as possible.

Encourage colleagues and students to become problem solving prodigies.  Lots of times meetings are called because we don’t empower people to solve their own problems.  They feel like they have to insulate themselves within a chain of command.

Abdicated decisions are not decisions.

Give them the confidence they need to solve their problems independently.  Let them be the first person that attempts to diffuse the bomb.

Its why you hired them.

If they get stumped, have them contact an expert.  If it escalates, it escalates.

This initial firewall is worth its weight in diamonds.

2. The Rule of Explicit Problems

Meetings are never called to gather consensus and identify what the problem is. Meetings are only called to remedy specific problems and figure out the why behind them.

Being asked out to Power Point Prom is about as much fun as it was being asked out to actual prom. In hindsight, you will regret it.

Figure it out, zero in on what you are going to solve and get your post-mortem on.

3. The Walkout Rule

If the meeting organizer can’t explain the the meeting’s objective in the first five minutes of the meeting, everyone has the right to walk out.

Flipping the bird is optional, but encouraged.

4. The Rule of Professional Courtesy

I never cease to be completely floored when people ask for time without presenting an agenda.

To be included:

Who: If they’re strangers, introductions and hyperlinks to bio’s, blogs or LinkedIn profiles might be nice. You can also use this time to ensure you have the right skills at the table.

What: What is the explicit problem you are going to solve?

Where: If its off site, locations on Google maps kick ass.  If it’s the weekend it better not be in a boardroom. Unless you’re a sadist.

When: See 20 minute rule.

Why: This is your value proposition.

How: This is where you outline discussion on solving said problem and assign tasks.

Send it to everyone at least a day in advance. Obvious, really.

No agenda. No meeting.  Period.

5. The 20 Minute Rule

The vast majority of meetings should take no more than 20 minutes.

GE CEO emeritus Jack Welch disagrees with this.  If he had his way, he would prefer that you marinate, take your time to get to know people, and point out problems related to the human aspects of managing purely through the metric of efficiency.

There is some truth to this. Sometimes there are exceptions to this rule, but they should be outliers and not the norm. Finding balance is an art.  Error towards respecting people’s time.

Don’t underestimate the power of time saving tools like g-chat and Asana.  This isn’t to say that old fashioned face-to-face interaction isn’t important, but virtual tools save time and resource overhead.

In either scenario, you have to account for minds to be present, attentive, and focused.  Brevity doesn’t allow attention spans to wander.

6. The Rule of Empty Suits.

The meeting organizer needs to ensure that the right skill sets are present.  You perform surgery with surgeons, anesthesiologists, and surgical nurses.  You don’t perform open heart surgery with interpretive dance artists.

If they don’t need to be there, don’t invite them.

Everyone in the meeting needs to take notes and everyone leaves the meeting with something to do.

If they don’t have a task at the end of the meeting, you never should have invited them in the first place.  That’s on you.

Take time to effectively assess and vet everyone’s contribution towards the desired goal.  Everyone will appreciate this.

Don’t be a Twonk

These guidelines were totally absent on my most recent fated afternoon.  I did my best not to look enraged but that’s only because I was daydreaming about being hoodwinked and enslaved by cenobites in a less painful dimension of existence.

Despite monopolizing an entire business unit’s time, within five minutes it was clear that everyone’s time was going to be wasted.

The people gathered around the table didn’t have the talent needed to tackle the problem and only one person was taking notes. One poor sucker was dialed in via conference call. Only two people walked away with an assignment.

What was that assignment you ask? They had to put together a subsequent meeting to follow up.

All that time invested, and nothing to show for it.

Avoiding all of this is easy.  All you have to do is send a link to this article next time you get asked to sit in a room where you know your very atoms will become speghettified by the sheer weight of despair.

Enjoy thy sanity.