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We must stop meeting like this

15 Feb


Keeping it brief

I worked in a police station for a couple of years. Not as a police officer, but it was a public-facing role, so I’d often attend the briefings at the start of each shift. These briefings were short, direct and focused. Everyone listened. There was always an opportunity to ask questions, but ask something stupid or obvious, and you faced the ridicule of your colleagues. Questions were rare. If you wanted more information, you could usually find it in a report.

The Japanese art of anti-meeting

Fast-forward a few years, and I found myself in my first teaching job in Japan, at my first weekly teachers’ meeting. I was bursting with ideas and opinions, but no matter how tentatively or respectfully I framed my comments, no-one seemed in the slightest bit interested. It took me another week or two to realise that these weren’t really meetings, they were briefings. You sat, listened and agreed. There was no agreeing to disagree. No serious discussion. The only real amusement to be had was to treat these ‘meetings’ like a game of poker and try to establish who really agreed with the decisions that were being communicated.

Meeting overload

Now working for an international publisher, having just one meeting a week is a distant dream. I spend an average of two hours a day in meetings. That’s 25% of my working week. And given that a meeting generally requires more than one person to be present, I’m sure I’m not a unique case. Many of these meetings are useful and necessary. Many others are not.

When I call a meeting, I think carefully about what I want to achieve, who needs to be there and if a face-to-face meeting is really necessary. I’m respectful of people’s time and will always circulate an agenda in advance so as not to spring surprises on anyone. I haven’t been trained to do this, it just seems like common sense. However, after (okay, to be completely honest, during) a particularly unproductive and painful meeting I was required to attend recently, I decided to Google good meeting practices to see if anyone had positioned themselves as an expert on the subject. No surprise, I guess, that quite a few (thousand) people have. Sifting through all the ‘5 steps to awesome meetings’ nonsense, I came across this little gem in the Harvard Business Review: Make Every Meeting Matter

Don’t always have a meeting

Many of the points made in this short HBR article are blindingly obvious, yet the problem in my experience is that the blindingly obvious is regularly missed. Meetings all too often become the lazy, default reaction to a problem or challenge, and almost become an excuse not to get on with addressing an issue. Why think something through yourself if you can pass your problems on to a group of other people to discuss (and rarely solve)?

Perhaps one of the most useful suggestions made in this article is ‘don’t always have a meeting’. Meetings are not the only way to collaborate or to distribute information. And if what you really want to do is simply discuss something, then go and have a discussion. A chat over coffee may well be what you need, not a windowless room full of people wondering why they’re there.

“If you can consistently have good, productive meetings then your company is going to perform better.”
Frances A. Micale, Not Another Meeting! A Practical Guide for Facilitating Effective Meetings (Oasis, 2002)

Think it through

To conclude, if you want an informal chat with someone, arrange an informal chat. Don’t call it a meeting and then bring in half a dozen other people just in case they might have something to add. And if a meeting is necessary, then so is an agenda. Just because you’ve been mulling something over for days, doesn’t mean I have. I’m useless at mind reading and I don’t like surprises. Every hour spent in a meeting is an hour that’s not spent doing other work, so make sure there’s a purpose to the meeting and some tangible outcomes. In short, please, please, think before you meet.


Trust me on the sunscreen

3 Jan

“Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life … the most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives, some of the most interesting 40 year olds I know still don’t.”

Everybody’s free (to wear sunscreen), Baz Lurhmann

Trust me on the sunscreen

I’ve never had a grand plan for my life. Academic expectations at the school I went to were low, and I over-achieved, stumbling – almost by accident – onto a literature course at a good university in the early 1990s. If I’d had to make a serious decision, as students do now, about taking on huge debt and selecting a course that would lead to a decent career, I probably wouldn’t even have considered it. 20 years ago all I knew was that I liked reading and talking about books, was good at taking tests and wanted to get out of the small town I’d grown up in. If the added bonus was that I didn’t have to think about a full-time job for three more years, then university was the place for me.

It wasn’t until fresher’s week that I discovered not every 18 year old was as aimless as me. People wanted to be lawyers, doctors, engineers, and many had been planning their academic and career paths for years. The only friend from university who I still stay in regular contact with, and who had a very similar background to mine, had known since he was 16 that he wanted to be a dentist. He’d picked his A Levels accordingly and had selected a career that he knew would also provide him with the kind of lifestyle he desired – he even knew what kind of car he was going to buy once he qualified. At 16 my main concerns were girls and whether I could get served at the local pub on Friday night. I’d have struggled to put together a plan for the coming week, let alone map out my life for the next 10+ years.

It was through a lack of forward planning that I found myself in my mid-20s working as a marketing assistant at a London university, living beyond my means and, possibly for the first time, a bit concerned about what the future held. It was there that, quite by accident, I met a Professor of Japanese Studies who, on hearing that I was worried about my own lack of direction, advised me to go and spend some time in Japan. It was as good an idea as any, but my credit cards and overdraft would barely cover the airfare. And that’s how I fell into ELT. Whilst long-term ‘life plans’ are not my strong point, practical thinking is, and a part-time CELTA and six-months later I was on my way to a sponsored teaching post in Osaka (with not a word of Japanese and only a very vague sense of where Osaka was).

Since then, one job has led to another, via an MA in Applied Linguistics and a Diploma in Marketing, and at each stage I can honestly say that I have enjoyed what I’ve been doing at the time I’ve been doing it. The joy of not having any clear ambitions is that whenever I’ve become bored or frustrated with the work I’ve been doing, or the place I’ve been living in, I’ve had no issue at all with moving on. In the interview for my current post the only question that threw me was one about pensions. I was asked why I was willing to leave a job with an excellent final salary pension for a job with a less impressive deal. Given that I’m at least 30 years away from retirement, for me this was mathematically six times worse than the “Where do you see yourself in five years?” question. Anyway, as I’m no stranger to job interviews I felt that an honest response was probably in order, and it certainly didn’t seem to do any harm.

So, now I’m working in ELT marketing for an academic publisher. I love the variety of work, the challenges, the people and yes, even the planning. Just don’t ask me where I see myself in five years’ time.

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