The meeting from hell

I read a survey recently that asked business people what they disliked most about work.  80% of them cited time wasting meetings as the bane of their existence.  It seems a hatred of meetings is universal.  And at the same time most of us are stuck with them.  The thing is, if they’re properly organised, meetings don’t have to be so bad.

It is remotely possible that someone reading this blog could come to the conclusion that I have a negative attitude.  Particularly about work.  In fact, I enjoy my work most of the time.  People piss me off, true.  But that doesn’t make me negative.  That makes me a realist.  Besides, how entertaining would it be to read about how happy I am every day?

I’ve been a Business Analyst for almost 12 years.  This suggests I either like the work or I’m not very career driven.  The answer is mostly I like being a BA.  The usual career path is to move into Project Management and I’ve made it clear before that I think Project Management sucks.  I’d rather be a BA where I get to do things than be a PM stuck trying to manage schedules and budgets.

It also makes it a little more interesting when people ask me what I do because my usual answer is “that depends on who’s employing me.”  Depending on the nature of the contract, I might be involved in some early stage requirements gathering, researching options for new software or a website, putting together a tender, writing up Business Requirements and/or Functional Specifications or maybe coming in towards the end of a project to write user documentation and/or help with implementation.

One thing I’m frequently called upon to do is run meetings and/or workshops.  This terrifies some people but I actually enjoy getting up in front of people.  The videos I post here should give you some clue that I like to perform.  When I’m planning sessions I usually look online for tips (Google is my co-pilot). 

When I was doing such a search recently, I found one guide included on a number of UK government websites.  It seems as though it was aimed more at community and political groups than corporate groups but it looked like there was some worthwhile information in there.  The full guide ran to about 10 pages.  As I worked my way through it, I started to notice a weird tone was developing.

It seemed to have been written by a passive-aggressive hippy.

The hippy side came out because there was a lot of touchy-feely, positive atmosphere, support everyone guff in there.  But I suspect the author was not aware how much of their passive-aggressive side was leaking through.  There seemed to be a paranoia about disruptive elements in the meeting along with a really punitive approach to dealing with them.  Phrases like “watch body language”, “Note digressions and remind members to stay on task” and “Guide members who speak a great deal to be briefer,” started to pop up.

And every time the author gave a suggestion for what to say to a troublemaker, the comment was always directed at a female.  I’m sure the author would say they were simply being gender inclusive but I couldn’t help thinking there might be some… issues behind this.

Then we come to the part that really made me think the author was a hippy: make everything FUN!  This isn’t a completely terrible idea but I don’t think it has to be binary choice between all fun all the time and complete drudgery.  Plus, “fun” is a subjective concept.  One person’s fun is another person’s hideous torture.  And some of the suggestions provided went waaaay into trying too hard territory.

The hippy’s central idea was that if you start each meeting with something fun, then everyone will rush to get to the meeting on time.  After all, who wants to miss out on the FUN?  I don’t know how I’ve missed this in the past.  For years now, my strategy has been to make meetings relevant, concise and as brief as possible.  Clearly I’m talking out my arse.

Here’s where I let the expert take over.  I now present for your reading pleasure some verbatim extracts from “Ideas for launches and fun.”  Possibly followed by some bile filled editorialising from me.

  • Sing your name and have the group sing it back to you

Oh. My. Fucking. God.  I stared at this suggestions for a full minute.  Seriously.  If I ever do this in a meeting, someone stab me in the fucking eye, please.  Because I’ll sure as hell do it to anyone who sings their name at me.

  • Break into small groups and do a mime or skit about an agenda item

I cannot imagine a presenter who made this suggestion getting out of the room alive.  I know I would be leading my group in a plot to murder the idiot.

  • Become someone else, mime it and have people guess

I would not be able to restrain myself if a presenter did this.  I’d be shouting guesses like “You’re a moron… You’re an escapee from a mental institution… No, I’ve got it, you’re a brain-damaged weasel!”

  • Sing and dance the song, the hokey-pokey

Personally, I’d lead a conga line straight out the door at this point.

  • Do a weather report on how you are feeling.  “Sunny and warm.  Cloudy with chance of grumpiness…”

I am Hurricane Katrina.  You are New Orleans.  Start swimming.

  • Dress up in a costume and make up a story about the history of an agenda item

Here’s a tip from Mr Angry, kids.  You can take this one to the bank.  If someone sends you a meeting invitation asking you to bring along a costume, DO NOT GO!

  • Have everyone write their middle name on a piece of paper then try to guess what name belongs to whom.

I would conspire with the others so that everyone wrote “dildo” and then every time we’d guess it was the presenter’s middle name.

  • Have everyone write something about themselves nobody knows then try and guess who wrote what.

Again, I would conspire with the group.  This time we would all write “I’m going to kill the presenter before the end of the meeting.”  Each time the presenter read one out, we would all act really innocent.  I’d love to see how the presenter’s “fun” mood was going after about the third one.

So much for the fun.  Another stellar piece of advice was “Praise people twice as much as you criticise them.”  My previous (and obviously misguided) strategy was to avoid criticism altogether whenever possible.  But I like this equation.  I look forward to going “Excellent point, Bob… I’m glad you brought that up, Bob… Bob, will you shut the fuck up already?  We all hate you.”

If anyone is actually looking for serious advice on running meetings, here’s mine:

  • Plan it out
  • Know what you need to achieve
  • Set an agenda and stick to it
  • Set a time limit and stick to it – set another meeting for another time if there are still things to resolve at the end of the meeting
  • Make sure everybody knows ahead of time what’s expected of them
  • Make sure the right people (knowledge holders and decision makers) are at the meeting

There are times when you need to get creative to keep people engaged, particularly with longer sessions.  Anything longer than two hours needs serious planning and some variety.  Actually, a better idea is to not run sessions longer than two hours.  Whenever possible, follow the KISS principle (which, of course, stands for Keep It Simple, Shit-for-brains).

Cut the bullshit and people will thank you for it.

18 Comments

Filed under Work

18 responses to “The meeting from hell

  1. y’know, if you’re going to post stuff you wrote before (or do i have prophetic visions?) Could you mark it as such? I got half way through this before I thought “hang on! this looks familiar!”

    Hugs and Kisses.

  2. with you 100% – the “fun” and it’s twisted adherents must be stopped!

  3. Vladimir

    My boss usually sends e-mails to everybody about an oncoming meeting. Let’s say, today is August 7, Tuesday. So he could write: “We have a meeting on Wednesday, August 9 at 14:00.” Then, later on: “The meeting time has been changed: now it’s 15:00.” Yet later: “Changed again, 16:00.” Later: “The meeting day is changed to Thursday, August 8.” Sometimes he cancels that meeting later, nearly before it’s beginning. If not – then it usually starts at least 30 minutes later than written in his last e-mail.
    Anyway, the meeting itself is utterly meaningless. It’s usually at the beginning of each week, where everyone is supposed to explain his last week’s glorious achievements. My favorite “fun” there is to scare everybody by some technical problem I encountered last week, then, after some debates, when they ask me in trembling voice: “Is there anything we can do about it?…” I say: “Well, actually, I’ve already solve it, only it happened this week, so I didn’t mention it in my last week’s report.” That’s fun. Yet I’d much rather prefer if they abolish the goddamn meeting already.

  4. My brother works for a Mazda/Volvo dealership. He is the parts manager, one cousin the new car manager, one cousin the service manager. He said in their managers meetings they spend a lot of time discussing ‘Pop’ (my uncle who owns the business), latest fishing/hunting trips, etc. Occasionally they might discuss something related to the job….but only if they are forced to do so. Now THAT is my idea of a good meeting.

  5. shadowshian

    yesh. another reason to avoid meetings like plague

  6. nomoregoatsoup

    I’ve never been to a meeting before, and I don’t intend on starting now.

    NO MORE GOAT SOUP!!!

  7. lifebylisa

    Well, if I began any meeting with singing, the fire alarm would be pulled, the building evacuated. If it came to charades, I couldn’t restrain mimicking the moron who came up with the initial idea, then we’d probably have a brawl breaking out in the hallway. Again, all the bullet points would be ignored, and yet another meeting (probably with HR) would be scheduled.

    I agree with the whole Keep it simple stupid idea, to avoid any more needless, unproductive meetings.

    Thanks for the post and helpful information. And, thanks, I can now consider my attitude as “realist” whew, sounds way better than negative.

  8. shadowshian

    umm i dont think lisa’s idea would work in my case.
    ie. example back in vocational school firealarm was set off middle of the lunch me and my friends were at the cafeteria eating after 3 hour electronics exam. so the firealarm went off we kept on sitting and eating. firealarm ended while we were there after we came back to the class teach told us the reason of the firealarm group of “high voltage” numb-skulls decided to use circular saw to open jammed locker rather than hand held metal saw. smoke ensues setting off firealarm

  9. Massif: I dunno, I reckon leading in with “I posted this before” would kinda kill a post. Plus, I like messing with your head.

    Vetti: Crush fun at all costs!

    Vlad: That does sound like a fun thing to do in a meeting

    Sandra: It could only be better if it was held at a pub

    Shadow: there are many reasons

    Goat soup: good luck maintaining your record.

    Lisa: I never admit to being negative, I’m always “realistic”😉

  10. ANYTHING that contains the word “mime” should immediately be doused in gasoline and have a bic set to it. This includes ANYONE using the word “mime” in my book, as well.

    You want to mime something, do you?? Okay, well mime being on FIRE you sick French Fuck!!! “Whoosh!” as the fireball explodes! AuuuggghhhHH!!!!!

  11. Excellent idea, “mime a buddist monk self-immolating you bastard! Here, let me help!”

  12. Pingback: Top Posts « WordPress.com

  13. zakkinen

    You’ve got me laughing tears. Why is it that so many people seem to get their ideas straight out of some Dilbert cartoon?

  14. I think the thing is that Dilbert cartoons come from real life.

  15. zakkinen

    Sure, but sometimes they are sooo close to reality, you’d believe it is the other way round.

  16. I am not part of the people who knew your blog before the diet pill story. Since than, I look quite frequently on your page. Probably you know already that some of your stuff is brilliant. Not all of it (I mind strong language even if it is sometimes the only appropriate way to address certain issues) but some. Like this post. So please, keep on posting old stuff that is so funny.
    Have a nice day, la puce

  17. I like strong language, so bring it on mate.

    I hate meetings. They always run long. Rarely have I met anyone who can stick to the time limit.

    I seem to remember a weekly Thursday morning meeting which kept running long, very long each week. I hated it.

  18. Mr. PM

    Yes it sucks lama balls. PMing is from hell. If it isn’t, you’re in a rare situation and live it up for all you can. Most PMs are completely powerless to enforce the schedules they create. Their sole purpose is to write pretty status reports for their manager (the ones who control actual budget). These managers understand exactly jack and shit about tech, and need the middleman to deal with the usually less than receptive or productive geeks. PMs are frequently beholden to half-baked software like MS Project, or the ridiculously overkill software like Jira. The best tool for any PM is Excel. Make header rows for sprints (aka phases) … and be sure to nod your head knowingly when some flavor of idiot notes the wonders of Agile vs. Waterfall … but always remember, Agile is just a protracted version of Waterfall, and the closest thing to union benefits a programmer or designer can hope for. Your excel sheet should (if nothing else) note person, task, and dependency (because every task usually winds up having some dependency). Subdivide each phase by duty type (dev, design, pm, etc.), and then copy/paste rows to each subcategory as they bounce between geeks/designers/content people, etc.. This way they can’t lose you in the mire of a bug tracking system. Most of all! Never ever let a geek preempt “your” meeting – it is “yours” and it’s about the only thing that is – so own it. If they gang up on you, switch to 1-on-1 meetings, or isolate the troublemaker to a 1-on-1 meet. Keep him out of the group meeting, and ensure that most of his information comes through you and you alone. When he’s ready to behave again stick him back in the regular group meetings. PMing is the art of advancing a schedule with no power while covertly looking for leverage points without giving yourself away. If you can do that, you may last a while, but ultimately your days are numbered – failure is a certainty if you are to be held accountable to a schedule that can be overwritten by complete idiots. And not to be sexist, but really the computer engineering world is dominated by men, as are their managers. Thereby, they generally respond better to female PMs, as they feel less threatened by them. As a woman, if you fuck up all over the place, they’ll generally forgive you WAY more than they’ll forgive a guy. A female can pull off that mother hen PM stick, where a guy can only fall back on some variety of softy or nazi. It’s a cock sucker world – learn a new skill – get out of PMing before your resume says that you’ve been a PM for so long that you’re not even good enough to PM anymore.

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