Sunday, May 17, 2009

Why We Love and Hate Meetings

Did you ever notice how many consultants have back problems? I do, from too much time in miserable seats on airplane, working on my computers at home, or sitting in boring meetings at clients' offices.

Because of my back problems, I can't bend over easily, which means I can't do an effective job of cutting my toenails. So, when I need to trim my toenails, I visit a salon for a pedicure. While having my toes clipped, I read the available magazines, such as Brides, Modern Bride, and Elegant Bride.

Bridal magazines are incredibly popular, with 135 different ones in print last time I checked. Topics include Beach Weddings, Bridal Parties, Destination Weddings, Accessories, Cakes, Ceremonies, Decorations, Dresses, Etiquette, Favors, Flowers, Gifts, Invitations, Planners, Receptions, Traditions, Trends, and many others.

Looking at all these magazines, I asked myself, "Who reads this stuff?" Well, obviously, guys don't usually read it, because nothing in the magazines evokes any emotional response—in guys. For many women, it's a different story.

From writing fiction, I've learned that emotion sells writing. My Plotbusters critique group constantly tells me that my stories don't sufficiently describe or evoke strong emotions. I didn't understand their comments, because the rest of my reader network didn't agree with them. What was the difference?

My Plotbusters colleagues are all multi-published writers, but generally not techies like the rest of my reader network. Evidently, non-techies don't fully appreciate my fiction. They say, "It's not emotional enough." Why? Because mostly the stories do not involve conflict, random violence, death, bad sex, unrequited love, and so forth.

What they do involve is smart people trying to solve problems, step by step. To me, that's not boring at all, but, indeed, extremely emotional. Tremendously exciting—which perhaps defines me as a nerd.

Which brings me back to meetings—why they bore me and cause back problems.

When I walk a client's corridors, I frequently meet people on their way to meetings. Although these same people have told me that meetings are boring, they often seem excited when they're on their way to one. Why?

Over the years, here's what I figured out. Most of my clients' people are techies—nerds like me. They find the meetings boring when they don't seem to be trying to solve problems, step by step.

At the same time, what these meetings are doing is playing out an emotional drama—conflict, blaming, flirting, one-upsmanship, random outbursts, anger, and so forth. For these happy people heading for meetings, it's those the soap-opera aspects of meetings are the most exciting parts of their jobs.

To the techies, the interest in these soap-operas is a distant second to the interest in a well-conducted problem-solving session. On the other hand, all this drama—the stuff we contemptuously call "politics"—seems to be the bread and butter of the non-techies. Indeed, these people are often upset if I show them how to conduct well-run meetings, because I've taken all the joy out of their lives.

Maybe I should bring them Brides Magazine to read in the time they save. Or perhaps Hot Rod Magazine for the guys.

Oh, and BTW, if you like to read stories of smart people trying to solve problems and be happy, take a look at my eStore.


Unknown said...

A friend of mine loves meetings. His favorite saying is that he would rather go to a meeting than to a movie. I have attended a few meetings that were more entertaining than most movies. I have not attended many productive meetings. I suppose I fall into the nerd category of wanting to solve things.

Still, if I have the "right" attitude (I want to be entertained and I am attending a meeting of very entertaining clowns), meetings are okay.

Brian said...

Here's an oldie:

Are you bored?
Are you lonely?
Are you ready for a change?

Call a meeting!
 Meet people
 Eat donuts
 Draw org charts

Meetings - the practical alternative to work!

Brian said...

Oh, and please notice that many, if not most, Dilbert strips are in the context of "meetings". :)

Fiona Charles said...

I've given up using the M word when I want people to get together to solve problems. I call them "working sessions".

Brian said...

Fiona is quite correct, as usual.

By calling it a "working session", you set expectations different from "nice little kaffee klatch and a chance to escape my dreadful cubicle". And no doubt in Fiona's case it alters the agenda from the usual "show and tell" to focus on the problem to be solved.

I'll bet Fiona is unloved in many settings for her businesslike demeanor. Quite effective, I wot.

Jim Bullock said...

I like "working sessions." I think there's maybe three kinds of things that get called "meetings" - "conversations", "working sessions" and "rituals."

"Conversation" remind me of "speech acts" from Searle & company. Something happens in language-land. A commitment gets made or accepted. A bit of reality gets defined. Someone asks a question.

Searle's speech acts don't really have a name for a "working session" like we're used to in doing technical work - bunch of people working together on one deliverable result. So, that's a good term. Isn't it curious that there isn't a common word for a bunch of people working together making something?

Kabuki-theater "meetings" seem mostly like rituals to me. People need rituals, too, even doing technical work. The big sign-off meeting (ritual.) The triage meeting (ritual.) I think it's valuable to tie big events to rituals. For example, in software a release "meeting" seems important to me. If it doesn't feel like an important ritual, something is wrong.

Unfortunately a lot of "meetings" in organizations are really one specific "ritual" the "I'm important and get to waste your time." ritual. I don't like that one very much.