Management A leadership failure

Meeting Blur

Wednesday afternoon. 3:30. Tanya and I walking through a complex political scenario involving Product and Engineering. Nothing devious. Just complex. Many moving parts. I’ve had some version of this conversation five times today.

The whiteboard is my savior. I’m using it to draw a picture that anchors the core points of the situation. Those core points change from conversation to conversation, and I update the picture to capture this emerging reality.

The problem is, the picture captures my reality and not theirs. When it comes to complex political scenarios, you need to keep track of who knows what. Again, nothing nefarious. No ill intent. Just an honest attempt to shape the narrative productively.

Tanya says something important. Really important. It’s high on the Richter scale of thought, and I need to update my entire thinking in a moment. Problem is, I’ve had this conversation five times today, and suddenly I can not remember what was said by whom, when, and where.

Welcome to Meeting Blur.

Too Much

As a leader, you have disproportionate access to developments in your team and company. Nothing surprising here. You are the representative of your team, so you get invited to a lot of meetings for representatives. These meetings contain synthesized information about what is going down in the company right now.1

Because of your access to all this information and your disposition as a person who gets shit done, you sign up for things. Often you will sign up for too many things. Because your job is to get shit done, you often will be in denial about having too much to do. I want to talk about how I know I’m in this state and the unexpectedly dire consequences.

Meeting Blur. When the number of meetings exceeds your ability to remember what was said by whom, when, and where. Let’s forget for a moment why there are so many meetings2 and focus on your mental state. You’re a bright emotionally intelligent human. You walk into a meeting and have a credible mental profile of each human at the table. Why are they here? What do they want? How do they feel about the topic at hand? All of this information is front of mind and readily accessible.

This is what leaders do. We compile every single moment into a vast internal story about the state of the company. We use this informative narrative for good, not evil.

For me, Meeting Blur occurs when I can no longer compile these moments. The amount of incoming data exceeds my ability to compile the story. Wait? Does Tanya know this? No, Stuart said it this morning, and no one knows that thing, yet. Right? Maybe…


But I get shit done, I got this. This is a blur blip.

No, it’s not.

If I fail to recognize my overloaded mental state at the moment, I will undoubtedly recognize it later… in the middle of the night. My eyes pop open at 3:13 am like I’m in the middle of meeting with Tanya. I’m compiling, I’m working the problem, and my brain is fully engaged. In fact, it’s clear that my brain has been working the issue for some time, but it was 3:13 am when the compilation was complex enough to wake me.

For years, I diagnosed the 3:13 am wake-up call as stress. It is stress, but the root cause is bad leadership.

On the Topic of Operational Excellence

Let’s forget about the deleterious effects of not getting enough sleep and talk about why this is a leadership failure. You are about to violate leadership rule #8: “You sign-up for things and get them done. Every single time.”

When you achieve Meeting Blur, something has gotta go. Your plate needs at least one less big rock, and that means failing on a commitment. Sure, you can give the work to someone else or perhaps delay another project to give yourself breathing room. There are any number of time-saving moves you can pull, but remains a leadership failure because you do not have a good internal measure for what you can and can not do.

Leaders set the bar for what is and is not acceptable on their team. They define this bar both overtly with the words they say, but more subtly with their actions. There are two scenarios when you’ve achieved Meeting Blur and need to act. You can not change anything and do all of your work poorly, or you can drop some of that work which equates to a missed commitment. While I believe you agree the optics on both scenarios are bad, what is worse is that by choosing either course you signal your team that these obvious bad outcomes are acceptable.

Seem harsh? Yeah, I’m a bit fired up because I think leaders often vastly underestimate the impact of actions we consider inconsequential. Let’s play it out once more: Thinking I am responsible and helpful. I sign up for things. I do this repeatedly and sign up for too many things. Over time, I realize I’m in overloaded, so I miss commitments. Where’s the flaw? Because I could not initially correctly assess how much work I could do, I’m signaling to my team it’s ok to miss commitments. What?

Yes, I am glossing over the complexity of situations that are obviously more complex. There is always situational nuance. There is always complexity that is discovered only by doing the work. Given all of these guaranteed unknowns, a credible leader needs to work to be clear about one key variable: their own capabilities.

  1. This is why when you go to these meetings, you must report back to the team. What happened? What’d we learn? What’s happening next? Everyone on your team knows this meeting happens, but only you know what happened. Share the knowledge. Free leadership points. 
  2. Actually, let’s not. How many meetings are you having a day? How many people are in these meetings? Do they all need to be there or have meetings become the means by which forward progress occurs.? Shit, you have a problem. 

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4 Responses

  1. Lol. Oh yes, been there. Just missed a critical meeting yesterday at 7am. I can’t change that fact, however I learned a valuable lesson… Better meeting alarms and earlier, multiple alarms at that! (=

    Of course had my phone rang I would have answered and attended the meeting. It didn’t ring. I failed to make it ring. It was my fault for missing the meeting.

  2. Linus 6 years ago

    My rule of thumb is if I haven’t been bored at least a little bit for a full week, I probably have a problem.

    I like being busy. If I am approaching 100% busy for a significant amount of time though I am not doing my job, because I should be able to meet my commitments and handle one major unexpected event at any given time, minimum.

    If I can go a week without at least having a bit of an itch that things are slow and boring, then either I am fighting too many unexpected fires, or I gave myself too full a plate, and both of those things are problems.