Sunday, February 19, 2006

More on Meetings (or is that "moron meetings"?)

A nice discussion by Jim Hu, at BFI,BFTD on meetings.

What should get done in meetings is part of our work as academics, and is therefore has nonzero value - and if meetings really produce nothing, the tips for making them more useful would be pointless. (NOTE FROM THE END: GOOD POINT. LOGIC IS A POWERFUL TOOL. MEA CULPA). But overall the value/time spent ratio is so low that his statement is may be within measurement error...and one could argue that meetings provide large negative net value when the opportunity costs in faculty time are factored in.

The major mistake that we make as faculty, as far as I'm concerned is that we don't understand the purpose of meetings. My postdoc mentor used to tell me: meetings aren't for making decisions; they're for recording decisions that have already been made by building consensus in discussions in each others' offices, in the hallways, and so on. Meetings may also be an acceptable way to share information...if the person presenting the information is prepared to do it.

He is (in part) correcting my earlier claim where I asserted:

Meaning that if you spend all day in meetings, you were doing NOTHING. Sure, you were AT work, and you were not having fun, but you didn't WORK.


My own thoughts: I see the point, and agree that some kinds of meetings are useful. But they are at best an input to work, rather than work itself. Furthermore, if you are an administrator, you recognize that many, many meetings have the following properties:

a. Top level administrator (who sends a confused document, instead of his/her confused self) orders that a group work on a "problem." (HINT: if this group is called a working group, it is going to be bad. If it is called a task force, it is going to bad, and pompous. If it is a blue ribbon committee....well, just bend over, because you are going to get it good and hard)

b. You have been asked to chair the {fill in bogus name here, from list above}. The other members of the {.} are mostly concerned with preventing the task from being carried out at all. They are bright, they are dedicated, and they have infinite time to devote to stopping this {.} dead in its tracks. They don't want to be in the meeting, but they always show up to make sure that nothing gets done.

c. Now, come up with an agenda and write a final report.

When I used to work for the Federal Trade Commission, I was a member of at least two of these "task force from hell" groups. We once spent nearly an hour arguing over the spelling of "entrepreneur." (Not meaning. Spelling.) Some people wanted to use the spelling found in dictionaries. Others wanted to use what they thought was phonetic spelling, because people would understand it better. I had misspelled it "entrepeneur" in a draft of an earlier report, so the second group thought I was with them. But I found the whole dictionary argument pretty persuasive (on spelling, Webster wrote the book), so I switched to that group.

And there were hurt feelings. People weren't sure I could chair the committee, after such an abuse of trust.

Yes, this is absolutely true.