I hate meetings.
Everyone hates them because we’ve all been to so many that have sucked so badly that we now walk into a conference room, sit down… arms folded, and think, “Ok, how long until this one is going to suck?”
And then it does. Time is wasted. Hot air is created. Silent frustrations are confirmed while historic hatred of managers is furthered.
There is a basic skill you need whenever you walk into a meeting which has suck potential. This skill is important in the case that you are a participant or the person running the meeting. The skill is called Agenda Detection.
Simply put, Agenda Detection is the ability to discern:
- Typical meetings roles and how meeting participants assume them
- Explanation of what these distinct meetings roles want out of a meeting
- How to use this understanding to get the hell out of the meeting as quickly as possible.
If you’ve ever been frustrated in a meeting — if you’ve sat there wondering why in the world these people, these managers, who are paid the big bucks to move the company along simply can’t do or say the painfully obvious then keep reading.
The first step in getting out of a meeting is to identify what kind of meeting you’re in. A meeting agenda would help, but as most meetings proceed without one, you’re on your own. Chances are, you’re either in a informational meeting or a conflict resolution meeting.
At informational meetings, big surprise, information is passed on. Think your favorite quarterly all-hands meeting, staff meetings… any meeting where there’s a standing assumed agenda. There are two kinds of participants in these meetings: talkers and listeners.
Roles and agendas in these meetings are simple. Talkers are talking and listeners are listening. Get it? There is no problem to be solved other than the transmission of information… that’s it. The quicker it happens, the sooner everyone is back to work.
You can quickly identify those folks who don’t get this. They’re the wack jobs who always ask the same (or random) question during an all hands with the hope that simply by asking, they’re going to change something. It’s a noble act… speaking your mind in front of all your peers. It’s a waste of time. This is an informational meeting, people. The talkers are here to pass on whatever organization knowledge they need to so as to prevent a rebellion. When the wack job speaks up, everyone who gets the nature of the meeting is thinking, “Ok, another useless question which is going to keep me here longer. Crap.”
I’m not saying that rocking the boat during the required Q&A session is not feasible in these meetings, it’s just not efficient. Folks are there to nod, not solve problems. Where the wack job should be speaking up is at our other class of meeting, conflict resolution… that’s where they could influence folks because people go to these meetings to solve problems.
At a conflict resolution meeting, some problem needs to be solved. Apparently, it could not be resolved via email, instant messaging, or hallway conversations, so some brihg tfellow decided to waste some more time in a face to face meeting where the bandwidth is high and the time wastage is significant.
Agenda detection in the conflict resolution meeting is more complex. To see it in action, let’s create a meeting:
4pm, this Tuesday. You, Joe Sr. Engineer, two other random engineers, one product management person, and a program manager. The program manager called the meeting to solve a problem. See, the Sales folks sold something that your company does not make. You’re here to explain how much it’d cost to build this thing that you’ve never built before but that’s already been sold. Been here? Thought so.
Agenda detection starts when by first classifying the players. There are two major types that you need to identify: Players and Pawns. The simple distinction between Players and Pawns is that Players want something out of the meeting. This is their incentive to participate. They’ll be leaning forward, actively nodding, and barely able to hold themselves back from spilling their agenda all over the table.
Pawns are either silent or instruments of running the meeting — in any case, they’re adding very little to the meeting and can be removed from consideration as a means of getting out of the meeting. The term Pawns is not intended to be derogatory… Pawns very well might be running your company, but in meetings, they just don’t contribute… it’s not their key skill.
Bucketing of Players and Pawns is simple, you can do it with the attendee list and a bit of organization knowledge. Let’s try it with our hypothetical meeting above.
First, you can assume all the engineers are players — they’ve got technical knowledge they may throw on the table otherwise why were they invited? The product management person is also a player as they represent sales folks in this meeting. The program manager is a pawn… they’ll make sure action items are recorded and that the meeting ends on time.
MEETING BAIL TIP #1: If you’re sitting in a meeting where you are unable to identify unable any Players, get the hell out. This is a waste of your time. These are meetings traditionally called by wind bags who like to hear themselves talk, but hold no real influence over the organization/product/whatever. Unfortunately, if you’re new to a group, you need to get burned by the wind bags a few times before you learn to avoid this totally fucking useless meetings. It’s tough being the new guy.
The next step in agenda detection now kicks in as we look at the Players. This is when you figure out each Player’s position relative to the issue on the table. For whatever that issue is, there are two subclasses of Players: the Pros and the Cons.
The Pros are the players who are currently on the winning side of the issue. They’re getting what they want and are not incented to negotiate. Heck, they don’t even have to be there… they’re just here to see the Cons squirm. Yet, they are there, they’re at least willing to listen to the Cons, right? Maybe.
The Cons, clearly, are the ones who are being screwed. They’re likely the ones who yelled loudly enough to get the meeting set-up in the first place. Cons are usually easy to pick out because they’re expressing some degree of pissed-off-ed-ness.
MEETING BAIL TIP #2: Like our Player requirement, both Pros and Cons must be represented for any progress to occur otherwise you’re just going to talk and talk and talk. You’re guaranteed the Cons are going to be present because they’re the ones who are screaming and shouting. If you want the meeting to actually produce something useful, the Pros must be represented. The specific Pro does not need to be in the building, but they must have designated a proxy otherwise the Cons are going to bitch, heads will nod, and nothing will happen.
Let’s take a stab at identifying the Pros and Cons in our hypothetical meeting.
In the example above, it’s clearly engineering who is being asked to build a product THAT DOES NOT EXIST. They’re pissed and they’ve called this meeting to quantify this frustration. Hello Cons.
As we’ve already identified our program manager as a Pawn, we can only assume that our product manager is the Pro. But wait, now you’re in this meeting and she sounds like an engineer. “Those god damned sales folks. What the hell are they thinking? This is the last time blah blah blah…”
Wait, our product manager appears to be a Con? Does this means Rands thinks I should pull the rip cord and get the hell out? No, your product manager is the Pro… she’s just bright. A common tactic of a good Pro is to not acknowledge that they’re the Pro. This means that they don’t have to actually take the heat for whatever the conflict is. The real Pros aren’t in the room — the real Pros, in this example, are the sales folks who cut the deal to sell the product that doesn’t exist — except they’re out in the field cutting more unachievable deals. The product manager is attempting to fake out the engineers in the room by saying, “Hey, this is a tough problem that THEY have put US in… what are WE going to do?” Brilliant bait and switch, no? Don’t sweat it. They make less than you.
The stage is set. Our Pawns have been filtered out. Our sneaky Pro is nodding.. placating with her feigned commiseration, the Cons are yelling and, yes, you’re still in the meeting.
Believe it or not, the hard part is done.
If you’ve paid attention, you’ve got a pretty good map of who is who, where the whos are… now all you need to do is figure out what the whos want. The Pawns don’t want anything — they were just happy to be invited. The Pros are there to show off their complete and utter ownership of the issue… they’ll leave whenever, the sooner the better.
So the reason you are sitting there is the Cons. What is it that they want?
Stop. You’ve got some meeting in mind, some horrible meeting where the issue is so complex that there is no way the simple identification process I described could apply. Wrong. Your jumping to solve the issue and there is where everyone fucks this up. Who cares about the issue? Do you know who matters in whatever horrible meeting your sitting in? Did you take the time to identify the people who actually care? The ones who can make a difference? If you haven’t then you deserve every useless minute of that meeting.
I am convinced that a majority of the meetings on this planet go long and do less because the people sitting around the table simply do not figure who the hell they’re talking to and what they want.
Yes, the Cons do want something. You’re going to meet their needs in order to get out the door and their needs are simple… so simple you’re going to laugh. The Cons need a plan. Some assurances there is a plan which is going to somehow address whatever the issue is. Doesn’t matter if that plan comes from the Pawn, the Player, the Pro, the Con… someone needs to synthesize everything into constructive next steps, communicate that TO the Cons, and you’re done. You’re out the door.
Doesn’t need to be a great plan or a honest one or a complete one. Cons will not let you out of that meeting until there is the perception of forward progress (“a plan”). If you’ve scheduled a hour and that hour is up, you’re thinking, “Well, that’s one way out the door”. Again, incorrect, because the Cons are returning to their desks and scheduling a follow-up meeting where the organizational ineptitude is going to continue.
MEETING BAIL TIP #3: You very well might have the requisite Players & Pros/Cons, but, then again, you might have too many. If it’s thirty minutes in and you still can’t figure out what the issue is, it’s time to go… too many issues. Someone who cares more than you needs to distill this chaos down to a coherent statement so the Pros/Cons can argue about one thing.
Meetings are always going to be inefficient because language is hard. Getting folks in the same group, with the same organizational accent to talk coherently to each other is hard enough. Meetings give us the opportunity to include other organizations with other accents. This makes the language chaos complete, but, now, you don’t care. You don’t need to know what they’re saying because with Agenda Detection, you can figure out what they want, get it for them, and get the hell out.