A big part of my philosophy of project management can be distilled down to one simple rule: Never have a meeting when an email will do. I conservatively estimate that on any given project that eliminates approximately 95% of meetings that otherwise would have taken place.
There’s a catch, of course. Periodically, the Gods on Olympus sneak into their questions about the status of whatever project interests them in the moment an inquiry like “When was the last meeting on this?” I can tell you from experience that the answer they’re not looking for is, “Uh, I think we had a meeting about three months ago.”
It won’t matter to them that you’ve got full command of all the pertinent information. It won’t matter that you’ve checked in weekly or even more often with all the people developing content and know that everything is on track. The only thing that will matter is that you haven’t had a meeting. You’ll never convince me that this minor obsession with meetings isn’t one of the big driving influences of why so many bosses are still hellbent on putting asses in cubes. Then, not only can they ask if meetings are happening, they can walk past and see people crowded into a conference room – pure management bliss.
Even though it’s not strictly necessary, I’ve been running a meeting once a month since before the new year. At least that way I can say with a straight face we’ve had meetings. Now that we’re closing in on the curtain going up, I’ve switched it to weekly meetings – because inside the 30-day window Olympian interest can become intense. At least I can tell them that, yes sir, of course we met on that just a few days ago and be 100% honest.
What I won’t mention, of course, is that these weekly meetings never take more than 20 minutes. In fact, today’s lasted a grand total of 21 minutes and conveyed exactly three new bits of information that I’d already sent out this morning by email. We’d have put up a better time but there were one or two technical snags that cost precious seconds.
But, by God, now we’ve had a meeting about it and nothing makes officialdom happier than knowing there was a meeting. I’ll shoot to get next week’s down to sub-15 minutes times. I feel like that level of success is really within my reach.
Six or seven years ago, one of my many other duties as assigned was to endure a monthly series of meetings that were barely tangentially related to anything happing in my office. There was the main meeting at the end of the month, prep meetings for that meeting, pre-meetings for the prep meetings, and host of other “pick up” meetings getting called with no notice. In any given month I could be guaranteed that 15-20 hours were going to be wasted staring at the ceiling in the conference room and wondering why people couldn’t just shut the fuck up once they made their point.
Around that time several pink shirts came into my possession. I started wearing these Pepto pink shirts on days when these random pointless meetings were scheduled – a silent protest. I needed a full suit of Pepto because I was well and truly sick of these meetings.
Eventually these meetings evolved into something else and landed on someone else’s desk, relieving me of the burden of enduring them. The pink shirts remained, though. Most of them are long worn out, but there’s one left. It’s a bit tattered and not fit for the office now, but it’s not quite bad enough to throw out.
It’s my first day back in the saddle after a long and restful break… and there was my last remaining Pepto shirt hanging in the closet this morning practically begging to be worn.
So yeah, if you must know, I’m wearing the pink today. I can’t think of anything that better suits today’s mood.
1. Free gifts. As the amount of actual mail I need to send has plummeted, the number of organizations sending me “personalized address labels” as a “gift” has skyrocketed. It makes me wonder who’s running their marketing and fundraising department… and why they think this is a winning idea. I mean if you’re going to inundate me with junk mail, at least make it something that doesn’t stick to the blades of my shredder and give me an even worse impression of your organization.
2. Aggressive marketing of things I’ve already purchased. I bought a very nice marble urn for Winston. Since then I’ve been getting at least one email a week from the nice people at perfectmemorials.com offering me a wide range of other funerary items. This feels like another marketing fail to me. I mean urns aren’t exactly the kind of thing anyone need to purchase every week, right? I was very pleased with their service and the quality of the product I received and in time I would probably use them again as the need arose… but if they keep beating me about the head and neck with weekly messages in all likelihood I’ll go someone where else when the time comes.
3. Look at me-ism. There are few things I find more professionally unpleasant than people who demand attention for their ideas or presence in a room simply by virtue of position. Look, if I need a chief in the meeting, I’ll be the first one to invite them. More often, though, who I need is the person who actually does the work. If you need to be in a meeting just to feel important, maybe it’s time to check yourself.
1. Rapidly shifting gears. I always forget just how steep the drop off in things to do is when a big project wraps up. Between last Thursday and this Monday I went from having 600 emails in my inbox and 47 missed calls on my phone to having a whopping 6 emails in my box waiting for action and no missed calls. For months there’s this gradual acceleration. It’s almost imperceptible. Before you know it you’re charging flat out, still accelerating, over the precipice, before slamming into the wall that is “business as usual.” I’m not exactly complaining that I’m getting a chance to catch a breath, but I am surprised more people don’t strip all their gears from downshifting so fast.
2. Housebreaking in the rain. Jorah has been a dream puppy as far as housebreak is concerned. Two solid days of rain, however, were something less delightful. Squishing around the yard every few hours in a steady fifty degree rain with wet feet is one of the joys of pet ownership that would surely make any dog owner question why the hell they decided to add a member to their family in the first place.
3. Playing bouncer. I spent a few hours this week checking badges and working the door to keep the riffraff out of a meeting. There’s nothing special about that – other duties as assigned and whatnot. I can turn off my brain and do as told with the best of them. It’s only later, when I put on my taxpayer hat and do some mental math about how much I made during my tenure as an up jumped bouncer, my eyes sort of roll back into my head. I have my own opinions of course, but I’ll leave it to others to decide on the application of resources… something something mosquito and sledgehammer.
4. Alabama. What the actual hell is wrong with you cousin fucking, backwoods, holier than thou asshats? Republicans are supposed to be the part of small government and minimal intrusion into people’s personal lives. You collection of assclowns would be hard pressed to find a way to be more invasive. At least when I think the government in Annapolis is a shitshow, I can look at your statehouse and remind myself that it could be worse.
I’ve spent more of the last three months engaged in the pursuit of one single line of effort than is strictly healthy for someone. That’s fine. Someone has to be the institutional memory – even if only to remind you of why something sounds good on paper but goes to hell in a handbasket in practice.
The bigger trouble comes when people who haven’t been paying meticulously close attention realize a Big Thing is about to happen. Then they want to get focused on it. They want to deep dive it and know all that there is to know. That, too, is fine… as long as one remembers that the more often you have to tell the backstory and provide months worth of details, the more limited the time remaining to actually do the work becomes. It’s a corollary to Tharp’s Maxim #1 – I can either go to meetings about the work or I can do the work. I cannot, however, do both simultaneously.
In any case, we’re racing from fire to fire, from crisis to crisis, in hopes that somehow we manage to deliver a final product that isn’t ridiculous in the eyes of gods and men. It’s a tall order – especially when we keep inflicting wounds on ourselves.
I console myself with knowing that good, bad, or otherwise, in short order a Big Thing is going to happen no matter how hard we try to fuck it up in the closing hours. One way or another we limp across the finish line a week from tomorrow.
Telework. This time of year, the slow choking off of my coveted weekly telework day in inevitable. This week, I moved my regular day to accommodate a meeting that ended up getting cancelled. Another meeting was scheduled creating a conflict with the day I moved it to, so slipped it to a third day and now another meeting has cropped up. I fully expect this third meeting will be cancelled or reschedule around the time I show up in the office tomorrow. My day for next week already conflicts with a meeting request. Everywhere I go I’m often met with an, “Oh, I can’t meet that day because I’m on an alternate work schedule” or “I’ll have to call in because I’m working from home that day.” I’ve clearly got “sucker” stamped on my forehead in giant block letters. I know this time of year it’s inevitable, but I was really hoping to squeeze in one more decent week before the shit began overwhelming the fan.
Voicemail. On Wednesday I got two voicemails in a row that indicated they were from my dentist. One of them was, in fact, from the dentist. The other was from a vendor I’m working with on the current party planning extravaganza… except when I called him back he said he hadn’t called my cell in weeks. So, thanks Verizon, I guess, for delivering the message both late and from the wrong source entirely. This should just serve as a reminder to everyone that voicemail is archaic and really need not be used in the modern era.
Facebook activists. I saw several posts this week decrying the fact that former Vice President Biden was being pilloried by the popular media for being a little handsy on the campaign trail. The argument was something along the lines of “why is the media talking about Biden when Trump is grabbing ’em by the pussy.” I could be wrong here, but I seem to remember the mass media making a fairly large story about that particular quote from then private citizen Trump. In fact they still trot it out from time to time. I’m pretty sure the media isn’t ignoring it… the bigger issue, perhaps, is that large swaths of the population think the job of the media is to tell them only what they want to hear and go apoplectic when it doesn’t.
“Hurry up and wait” is one of the great tropes of my particular Big Bureaucratic Organization. I suspect though that tropes become time worn examples because they have far more than a grain of truth about them. My experiences, not unusual, are of long stretches of boredom interspersed with shorter moments of intense action, chaos, or panic.
Today was, if nothing else, a perfect example of the two… the morning was spent waiting, mostly for other people to deliver a product or otherwise show up wherever they were supposed to be. In contrast the afternoon was a misadventure of dashing between rooms and meetings trying to keep a coherent thought in my head without pausing to come up for air. That’s the way of things here, at least for me, during this particular part of the year.
Tomorrow will be more of the same. Perhaps a little more wait than hurry up… a chance to sit down, gather my thoughts, and try to deconflict the data dump from today wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.
Don’t get me wrong, I can do analysis on the fly… but you shouldn’t want me to. It’s better for everyone if I’ve had a chance to think through the right solutions before firing from the hip with what feels like it could possibly be the answer. Under those circumstances, the conclusions I draw might be correct, but they could just as easily be well reasoned, justified based on the available data, and absolutely wrong on every count.
There is a world of difference between being busy and getting things done. I was looking at my calendar for the next ten days or so and it’s absolutely undeniable that I’m going to be busy. Meetings are stacked up like cord wood and on a few days there might even be time to eat a lunch that won’t feel like either a late breakfast or an early dinner.
Although I’m going to be busier than a one armed paper hanger, what I can tell you with almost perfect certainty is that I’m not going to be getting things done. Experience tells me that the amount of work accomplished is inversely proportional to the number of hours spent sitting in meetings. It’s a known fact across the bureaucracy, but doe some reason the illusion that meetings in some way equate to work accomplished persists in the minds of people who call meetings.
Maybe it’s possible to both attend meetings and be a productive and contributing member of society, but I’ve never cracked the code on making that happen when the meetings and the work insist on occupying the same eight hours of the day. I suspect that the people who pull off spending all day in meetings and also somehow manage to get something done are willing to slip in a few extra hours on the side.
If you’re sitting around waiting for the same from me, my best advice is to get comfortable, because you’re going to have a bit of a wait.
1. Second Monday. Look, I’m 100% thankful for the unscheduled Federal holiday on Wednesday. The unintended consequence of this Executive Branch largess, though, was that this week had what is effectively a “second Monday.” Going back the the work after a bureaucracy-free and relaxing weekend is a regular, recurring minor trauma that fills Sunday evenings with angst and dread. Once the week gets going though, the follow-on weekdays are each slightly less traumatic than the day before. Plopping an unexpected day off down in the middle of the week created an unnatural imbalance in the normal flow – and in doing so made Second Monday feel even worse than regular Monday. It’s hard to believe that such a thing is possible, but there it is.
2. Cubicle Hell. For all of the wonderful management literature written extolling the virtues of “open concept” workplaces, none of them bother to take into account how the average employee may actually require some time to analyze, read, or complete a work product that requires some level of concentration. I only bring it up because of the increased frequency of people holding entire goddamned meetings with groups of 4-5 others spilling out into walkways or shouted over the top of adjacent walls. Multiply that by as many as 5 of these impromptu “meetings” fired up all at the same time, well, you might as well sit back and start counting ceiling tiles because even pretending to look productive under the circumstances is a lost cause.
3. The human tailbone. I’m not a fancy big city doctor, so I don’t know exactly what a tailbone is supposed to do for a person. I reckon it’s mostly like an appendix – except that when something goes wrong with it it doesn’t burst and kill you so much as it stays right where it is and hurts like a sonofabitch whenever you sit down. In any case, it seems to me that there should be some kind of corrective option beyond, well, just don’t sit so much. That’s fine advice, I suppose, when your day isn’t spent tethered to a desk and reading volumes of fine print for the minutia that someone is trying to bury in the fine print. And yes, before someone points it out, I know that Churchill worked at a standing desk. He also worked in the bathtub and I am, clearly, no Winston Churchill.
It’s one of those weeks where it would have been far easier to pick out that which did not annoy me than that which has, but I’ll give it my best effort.
1. The last minute. When a large group of people have been working on a project for a very long time, what you shouldn’t do, unless you outrank the people in the room by a whole shit tonne, is show up to the very last meeting making suggestions and trying to change the world. Fuck of with that jackassery.
2. Just (not) doing it. At the moment I’m tracking approximately 4,746 moving parts across a dozen different organizations that all have to mesh close to seamlessly in order to avoid looking like amateur hour. If you are responsible for 1 of those 4,746 things – and only 1 of them – it doesn’t feel like too much to ask that you at least half ass it instead of needing me to call down the whole mountain on your head when we’re measuring time in hours instead of days. Get in the damned sea.
3. New computer day. I’m as big a tech head as anyone and you can count on exactly one finger the times I’ve turned down a new computer – especially considering the elderly and decrepit state of the laptop I’m currently using. The only time I’m going to raise a stink and scream and yell is when you tell me New Computer Day falls right in the middle of the biggest work effort of my year. It would be like taking your accountant’s computer on April 14th and telling him he might get it back in a few hours or maybe a few days depending on “how it goes.” Just no. Not today Satan. Not today.