I recently spoke at Yahoo! about the book, and, for this presentation, I adapted the Agenda Detection and Meeting Creatures chapters into a piece about how I assess agendas and people in the first 10 minutes of any meeting.
Early on in the presentation, I asked the audience, “What are the things you are supposed to do to make a successful meeting?” First hand: “Make sure everyone closes their laptop.” Yes. Full agreement from me. If you’re sitting in my meeting and your laptop is open, I promise, I swear — you are giving me half of your attention. Maybe less.
The Yahoos couldn’t drop the topic. In Q&A, the laptop question came up. In the post-presentation mingle it came up again. Everyone wanted to know if there was a situation where it was OK to whip out the laptop.
My answer, over and over again, is “No.”
Now, this is religion and not reality because it’s likely I’ll bring my laptop to a couple of meetings this week, but I am ultimately fucking up by doing this. Here’s why.
There were three different angles the Yahoos tried on me, and I have an answer for each:
“What if I’m taking notes on my laptop?”
This is how laptops got invited to the party. Pre-wireless-everywhere folks were using their laptops as note-paper. This is fine, but nowadays, are you really just taking notes? Really? It takes one lull in the conversation to get bored and starting glancing over at CNN, and in that moment I might say something you need to know and you missed it because you stopped listening. So, what are you doing in this meeting? If you’re going to ignore me, you can just as easily do it sitting in your office.
One solution to this problem is to leave the laptop in your office and bring a nice, bright sheet of white paper to the meeting. Try it. When forced, you might even find something interesting in the dull parts of the meeting.
“I’m required to go to this meeting and I have no role, so I bring my laptop to get work done.”
I have two answers to this. First, why the hell are going to this meeting if you have no role? Second, even if you don’t have a role, how do you know you don’t have a role? If you’re sitting there ignoring whatever is being said while you’re scrubbing the bug database, you have nary a clue what is being talked about.
When I’m forced to go to a meeting where I have no obvious role or responsibility, I give the meeting the benefit of the doubt and listen hard. What is going on here? Do I care? How can I help? With all the wonders of the Internet sitting on my MacBook Pro, this can be tricky, but what I’m trying to figure out is if I can add any value in the time that I’m required to sit there. If, after a few meetings, I’m certain I’m a) not going to learn anything, and b) can’t add any value, I stop going to the meeting. Consequences are forthcoming, but more on that in a moment.
“I run the meeting and they’re not respecting my laptop policy.”
Some meetings involve piles of people, and this creates a comfortable anonymity where attendees ignore the no-laptop policy and type away. My advice here is to politely remind everyone of your policy. Still a problem? Remind them again. More typing? It’s time to remove these people from the meeting.
Being a meeting jerk has consequences, but it’s those consequences you want to face because you’ve got a bigger problem than people ignoring your meeting.
All this focus on laptops as the problem is a red herring. Whether you’re running a meeting with a rampant laptop problem or sitting in a meeting where you have no role, the actual problem is that someone doesn’t understand the value of the meeting.
No, it’s actually worse.
The problem is that everyone attending this laptop-laden clusterfuck is subconsciously hearing “Hey, in this meeting, it’s A-OK to waste people’s time.”
My question is: “When is it ever ok to waste people’s time?”
You’re on the defensive now and you’re thinking “But Rands, while I’m not actively contributing to this meeting, I am getting work done on my laptop.” No, you’re not. You’re giving the same partial attention to your laptop task that you’re giving to the meeting. You are doing two things poorly rather than one thing well.
The solution here is simple. If you’re in a meeting where you have no role such that you’re tempted to stare at your laptop: stop going. If you’re running a meeting infested with laptops and, after repeated gentle reminders about your no-laptop policy, there are still laptops: remove the laptop offenders from the meeting.
This brute force approach strikes me as being a violation of the Rands “Don’t be a prick” policy, but frequent readers know that not being a prick is always trumped by the even more important policy of “Don’t waste my time”. Besides, being a prick is going to have some interesting side effects.
Standing Meeting Momentum
Meetings become part of organizational culture. Just like any organization has a healthy layer of baffling acronyms, they also have a set of core standing meetings. Some of these meetings have been around forever and have a life of their own.
Thing is, in the five years that you’ve been working at that company, the company has (hopefully) changed. More importantly, so have the employees. So why in the world do we still have that useless product status review for everyone on Tuesdays at 4pm? I can get all the information from the wiki Frank set up.
If you have no role in a meeting and stop going, or if you remove someone from a meeting, you’re going to create a conflict with whoever believes that you (or the other someone) should be in that meeting. This is great. This is the discussion you want to have: “Frank, I’ve been to this meeting 12 times and I’ve no clue what I’m doing here. Please advise.”
Maybe Frank has some insight for you. Maybe he can explain some strategic shenanigans that will adjust your perspective so that your first reaction in this meeting isn’t to surf the popular videos on YouTube. If Frank can’t clearly explain why you need to be there — guess what — I’ve just saved you 30 minutes to an hour each week. Please consider this an early Christmas present.
A bunch of people sitting in a meeting, staring at their laptops, is a fat meeting. The people sitting at their laptops have no incentive to change a thing because they’re lost in whatever has captured their interest on their laptops. This is a lazy meeting full of people who are ignoring the most important question: “How do we figure out how to never have this meeting again?” Even worse, an organization that lets this meeting exist is a rotting organization. It’s a company where it’s slowly becoming acceptable to sit there and do nothing.
A meeting must fight to exist. It must defend its existence to its attendees who should constantly be asking “Why are we here?”
Now you understand the other thing I do in the first 10 minutes of any standing meeting: I think about how I can kill it.