A big boss called his senior managers to his office and said darkly: ‘I want you to return to your offices and await further instructions’. Feeling extra important, they duly returned to their offices and called their own management teams and gave out the same instructions. You guessed it; the middle managers called their supervisors and repeated the same useless message. On and on, the message cascaded until it reached the bottom of the hierarchy and sensibly, the workers ignored the absurdity of the situation and got on with their daily work.
I hope this ‘unlikely’ story made you at least smile. But wait a minute, don’t you recognise it? Does it not speak your truth at all? Are you sure?
I once watched a documentary about the semi-nomadic Maasai Tribes who inhabit the region between Southern Kenya and Northern Tanzania. The Maasai have a distinctive and distinguished appearance due to their elaborate dress code and willowy tall figures. They are excellent hunters and able to produce food in the arid scrublands of the region even in severe drought conditions. What I found particularly interesting about the menfolk of the Maasai is their frequent habit of leaving the women to take care of everything while they walk for hours until they get to a pre-designated somewhere, spend a while there and return to the women and children before dark. The documentary maker asked a group of Maasai men within earshot of the women: ‘what do you do when you get to your remote destination?’ The answer was shocking, funny and puzzling. They said: ‘we have meetings’.
I do not recall if the interviewer pursued that line of questioning with additional queries like: ‘what do you meet about?’ Or, ‘why walk so far for a meeting?’ Or, ‘do you keep minutes?’ But what I do recall is that it spoke my truth and reminded me of what I too engage in more often than I would like. I cannot tell you how often I traveled far to attend meetings that said a lot and produced little or nothing.
The most absurd occasion was flying out from London to the USA in the morning, arriving early afternoon, attending a pointless meeting, then taking the evening flight back to London to arrive less than 24 hours since my original departure. The most ridiculous part of this story was that I drove over 100 miles to Gatwick Airport and drove myself back home the following morning and I actually momentarily fell asleep at the wheel a few times on the way home and in the process, almost killed myself and other innocent people. I have to confess that was not the most glorious 24 hours of my life and I still feel ashamed of my folly.
Let’s not get carried away here, not all meetings and gatherings are useless; it would be disingenuous to suggest that. Also, not all big bosses are like Scott Adams’ cartoon creation Dilbert, a mediocre office journeyman with a spectacularly useless boss whose idea of helping a failing project was to instruct the project manager to provide him with daily progress reports until the project situation improved. I consider myself very lucky to have worked for incredibly effective and inspiring bosses who taught me so much by showing me how to focus on doing my job to the best of my ability and avoid activities that generate more heat than light.
So, what’s my point?
My point is simply this: We expend a great deal of energy and time in order to fill the void in our working days. It seems, to me at least, that the usefulness of a meeting is inversely proportional to the duration of the meeting and the number of people who attend it. There comes a point when ‘the law of diminishing returns’ which states that after a certain point, where benefits gleaned out of increasing efforts begin to decline and possibly yield negative results. Similarly, long meetings, which on occasions go in to days in duration, become less and less efficient as time goes by and fatigue sets in.
To be honest, and from personal experience, I find that the optimum time for any meeting is no more than two hours. If a meeting objective cannot be defined, agreed, discussed and conclusions reached within this time lapse, then it is probably a vague, complex or inherently wrong objective that needs to be re-thought and revised.
I also contend that the busier someone is, the less effective they are at their job. I know people who pride themselves on how crammed their work diaries are; how long it will be before they can ‘fit me in’; how many emails they receive / send; how infrequently they see their families; how many air miles they clock; and so on.
I confess to being guilty of some, but not all of the above. What’s more, I lie about being THAT busy. There you have it; I implicated myself. If you know me personally and, at one time or another, you looked up to me, stop looking.
So, why do we work long hours, participate in long meetings, aspire for more authority and power, neglect to discharge our responsibilities towards our staff and measure our success rate by order of magnitude rather than relevance of output? The answer is simple: because we are no different today than we were thousands of years ago when the measure of power was physical size / strength, hunting prowess, how high up trees we could climb, how many heads of sheep, cows, or goats we owned. These days, physical prowess, at best, makes you a successful sportsperson and at worst, gets you to be a nightclub bouncer or a porn movie ‘actor’.
Clearly, there are extremely powerful and influential people around the world and out of 7+ billion world population, there are probably less than half a million people who can be considered genuinely powerful / influential individuals. As for the rest of us, we endeavour to travel far and have long meetings, which take days and weeks to organise because we are all trying to out-busy one another.
I would love to round off this diatribe with something profound, cutting, funny, or all three things but; I have to rush to my next meeting.