Working with a number of senior managers and executives from some Fortune 500 firms, I increasingly find that all of them seem to be measured with a new statistic - meeting minutes consumed. Often, the only valuable time you can acquire from these folks is in the hallway between meetings. They are overworked, overscheduled, multi-tasking and reacting to what's going on around them rather than taking control of their work and their results.
Where is it written that we have to attend every meeting that we are invited to? Where was the law laid down that we HAVE to be busy all of the time? If these concepts are true, when does anyone have time to think about the consequences of being busy all the time, and the missed opportunities?
Working as a consultant, I've basically come to the conclusion that rather than try to work with most of my clients, I should simply develop a plan and begin enacting that plan with whatever resources I can beg, borrow or steal from the client or simply bring along my own. Even in mission critical projects it is often just too difficult to get enough commitment and attention from senior executives who are simply overwhelmed by the number of items they are tasked to do. Adding another task means nothing to these folks, cause they aren't really accomplishing any of the other ones very well - sort of like the guy who spins plates on sticks and is constantly darting from one plate to another just as the plate is about to fall.
Why are we so overscheduled, overtasked, overmeetinged? I think there are at least five significant reasons:
- Most firms place a high value on busyness, not necessarily results. If a person seems very busy, then they must be doing something valuable.
- However, if someone is successful at something, we have even more incentive to ask them to take on more work - of the type they are good at and often work they aren't so good at. It is very difficult to say "no"
- Many firms have lack good, clear objectives and strategic communication, so it is hard to tell what initiatives are really important. When there's a lack of clarity, everything is important.
- We've lost the ability to determine who needs to know what. In a recent meeting I was asked to lead, many of the participants brought others who weren't originally invited, and who did not have a clear role to play in the meeting.
- The pressure of making the quarter. Speaking recently with a gentleman who was highly placed in a Fortune 500 firm, the frustration of constantly short changing the future to "make" the quarter was evident.
It's really up to us. We can refuse to attend meetings we don't need to attend, we can refuse work we can't do effectively, we can ask for clarity and specific direction to discover what's really important, or we can attempt to attend meetings that don't matter and multitask by typing on our BlackBerry/Palm/Handheld during the meeting.
There's a logical conclusion to all of this busyness. Eventually people will simply check out - they won't find any joy in their work, being constantly jerked from emergency to emergency, meeting to meeting, multitasking all day. People who live in a constant state of high alertness and emergency are rarely productive and it wears them down over time - that's why we rotate people on and off of the "front lines" in warfare. After a while, living in those conditions, they simply aren't as productive. While it's a stretch to compare the average office worker with a grunt in the service, some of the same stresses and constant emergency mentality are the same.