The Meeting Default

I’m not a big fan of meetings.  They can be an organizational, cultural norm that absorbs not only productivity but also derails initiative and innovation.  When they are a default mechanism, where they are chosen as the first means of sharing information rather than as one of many alternatives, it raises a red flag about the meeting scheduler’s approach and goals.

I have one rule for accepting a meeting:  I believe I can provide some sort of value at the table.   (Well, I’ll also decline a poorly planned meeting but that’s later!)  If it doesn’t meet that threshold – if I’m just there to warm a chair – I’ll decline.  If the meeting is being called by someone up the chain of command and my role seems unnecessary, I’ll either ask for clarification or suggest that it’s not clear why I’m participating.  You can’t escape all meetings, particularly when the entire culture leans towards meetings.

The value varies.  As a manager, sometimes I need to provide backup for my staff or firewall them off from poorly conceived projects that seem them as resources.  As a subject matter expert, I may be able to provide specific information or merely a different persepective.  There are times, though, when a meeting is called and people are included because someone thinks they should be there.

And they’re wrong.

My first law library job was at the SMU School of Law and I still remember being introduced by the Dean as the electric services librarian.  I’ll give him a bit of slack because I was the first one with that role but I’ve found, over the years, that people often use titles as proxies for expertise.  For example, if you have web in your job title, you invariably get roped into things that are Internet-related but not necessarily web-related.

It took me awhile, and it’s a process that restarts at each organization, to realize that sometimes I’m being asked to participate because people have incorrectly identified me as a participant or stakeholder.  If you don’t decline those opportunities, perhaps after going to a meeting to confirm your suspicions, you’ll find your own productivity diminished while confirming a misunderstanding of your role in the eyes of others.

What about staying in the mix?

You need to stay in the mix.  It’s not good for your or your team or organization if you are missing opportunities to provide value and learn from others.  It’s a balancing act.  This was brought home this morning when I was trying to schedule a meeting with 2 other managers.  My schedule is pretty clear – most of my meetings are face to face with my staff, ad hoc as they need to talk to me.  Manager B had a busy schedule but mostly just parts of the day.  Manager C’s schedule was unbelievable: back to back meetings for more than a week straight.

Most managers I know are a mixture of manager and subject matter expert.  They’re managers because they’ve done the work their teams do.  Keeping these in balance means having time to think, to plan, to strategize, to educate oneself.  As your personal calendar gets darker with meetings and other commitments, it becomes harder to fit those other functions into your work day.  Even if, like me, you use your commute for some of this mental work, some things can only be done at a workspace.  Populating your schedule with meetings can eliminate the opportunities for serendipitous run-ins or the ideas that occur randomly to your staff and for which they just need a bit of your time.

I felt for Manager C.  Hopefully this is a temporary state but, having met with them a couple weeks ago, I don’t believe it is.  The team has a particularly acute case of meetingitis and overinclusion of participants.  Once that culture becomes the default, it can be very hard to crack.  Until it is, the lack of productivity is noticeable across the organization, even if those in the meetings don’t see it.

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.