Take a minute and picture this scenario: You show up ten minutes early for your 9:00 am meeting ready to roll and only half of your colleagues are there so far. 9:00 comes and goes and people slowly trickle in until 9:10, including the person who called the meeting (who, for the purposes of this post, we will call the Meeting Troll; Seth Godin’s blog post on A Field Guide to the Meeting Troll alludes to the idea that the Meeting Troll can be any coworker, but for the purposes of this post we will be referencing your boss or supervisor, who by the way, is the same person who has instigated the idle chit chat that has allowed things to run late). The meeting opens with something to the effect of “Well, I guess it is about time we get started…let’s see…why doesn’t everyone give us an update of where they are at this point in the week/month and we’ll see where we are after…” With no time limit or format or real clear purpose for this ‘sharing’, what unfolds is a series of conversations that start somewhere, diverge to somewhere else, possibly come back to the original point…and eventually end but no one’s really sure what got talked about or what has to happen moving forward. If anything productive that was mentioned it was probably briefly acknowledged and glossed over (the Troll taking a mental note to follow up in private to make sure to get enough info to take credit); if anything questionable in terms of possible outcomes is discussed the Troll makes sure to continually ask ‘you’ how ‘you’ are going to handle it and if any guidance or advice is offered it’s not written down (so if the task fails the Troll can take no ownership); and if anything innovative or new is brought to the table a litany of ‘why it won’t work’ starts to unfold (don’t’ want to create too much work now do we?). As images of Dilbert vividly yet sadly start to pop up in the forefront of your brain, you cannot help but wonder…’Why are we here again? What have we gotten accomplished?’ By the way, it’s now close to 10:30 or 11:00 and that pile of your own to-do’s is slowing building; it is at this point that your brain completely tunes out the current conversation on how long it takes the copier company to fix the glitches on the machines which are totally impacting productivity…and starts to prioritize how you are going to actually get work done.
As this month’s topic on leadership popped up I was just finishing reading and rereading a few items that I though applied: Timothy Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek, Kouzes and Posner’s The Leadership Challenge, and Seth Godin’s blog on A Field Guide to the Meeting Troll. While the above scenario is most likely an all too often sad reality in most organizations (schools are no exception), inefficiency in management (which is related to yet a separate skill from leadership) goes beyond just countless hours wasted in meetings but is now continued through mediums such as email and other technology-based systems. The irony in this is, of course, the collaborative and almost instantaneous nature of current Web 2.0 technology is that it is built to increase efficiency and save time.
Before we get into the ‘Don’t be a Troll’ part of this post, let’s make sure we understand the overall relationship between management and leadership. Both these concepts go hand in hand and while there is a difference between the two, they are very difficult to separate. A post in the Wall Street Journal titled ‘What is the Difference Between Management and Leadership’ that adapted it content from Alan Murray’s The Wall Street Journal Guide to Management does a nice job very simply stating the particulars: “The manager’s job is to plan, organize, and coordinate. The leader’s job is to inspire and motivate.” At some level the difference is the split between our right brain (abstract random, forward thinking, the ‘big picture’) and our left brain (concrete sequential/liner thought, planned, organized, detail detail detail). Regardless of a person’s natural strength, both strong leadership and strong management skills are needed (whether they are put into practice by one person or shared between/among a team) to create a work environment that is both innovative and effective.
What does an innovative and effective work environment look like? In their study of leaders at their personal best, Kouzes and Posner identified The Five Fundamental Practices of Exemplary Leadership to be common to leaders who were able to: Challenge the process, Inspire a shared vision, Enable others to act, Model the way, and Encourage the heart. If you break these into descriptors for an ideal workplace they would translate into an atmosphere where open dialogue and intellectual discourse/argument are encouraged, where egos are low and productivity and innovation are high, where traditional organizational hierarchies are nonexistent and ideas can come from a first year to a thirty year veteran employee, where wrestling with tough issues is the norm and where collaborative problem solving processes are a staple, where employees are challenged, supported and empowered to be reflective practitioners, where failures are seen as opportunities for growth and successes are celebrated and then used for building blocks for future work, and lastly where time is used proactively and efficiently, not wasted. So what does all of this have to do with being a ‘Meeting Troll’?
Timothy Ferris opens his chapter on ‘The End of Time Management’ with the following quote: It is vain to do with more what can be done with less.– William of Occam (1300-1350), originator of ”Occam’s Razor”. What particularly struck me when I first read this quote and the subsequent chapter on how we (the working society) tend to equate being busy and working for long hours with being effective. For a long time I had not considered ‘time’ something that could fall under the ‘less is more’ or the ‘work smarter not harder’ maxims. I can remember my first few years teaching and coaching I was under the assumption (because culturally this is what was passed down as ‘this is how things work here’) that if I stayed at work until 8 or 9 at night then I was doing a good job. As a teacher, the students showed up at 7:30 and left at 3:00, so I had to be there at 6:00am and, with coaching especially, wasn’t doing my job if I left before 6 or 7 at night. Also, the longer a practice ran the more effective it was going to be for the team. All of this, of course, I found out later was at some level false. I am by no means saying that the first years of teaching (or any job for that matter) are to be taken lightly…work is work and teaching especially is hard work. BUT in my varied roles have seen some incredible teachers (and educators in general for that matter) put in more focused time and get a much better product. Managers are no exception.
In an age where streamlined processes and collaborative technology are in abundance, why do we have so many meetings? Why are face to face sit downs that most times seem to get very little accomplished so prevalent? Are we just so trained to work this way? What would happen to the Meeting Troll if we only met once a month for 1 hour, had a focused agenda, and the rest of the communication and decision making was done via some electronic medium and phone calls and maybe an occasional face to face conversation if needed (but in small numbers)? What if, as Ferris recommends, we assign priority levels of the types of tasks that need to be done- much like the DEFCON alert posture used by the United States Military? For example, any Level 1 task or situation is low level, can be handled purely by a 1 to 1 or 2 to 1 communication between employees of the same pay grade (phone, quick conversation or email); any Level 2 task includes 3 or more employees (or whatever number you deem worth a Level 2) or something that is crossing departments, divisions, etc. Again, though, no managers or ‘next level’ input needed…OR you could decide that rather than the amount of employees or departments impacted a Level 2 can be ‘we need a manager or someone in a leadership position to intervene’. Level 3’s may then require an actual called meeting.
I am sure there are systems in place in organizations that have some structure like this set up. I myself am a partner in a small Real Estate LLC that buys, rehabs, rents and manages rental properties. We are by no means a giant or even well known in the industry but we do oversee roughly 1.5 million in assets, and we do it with no more than 2 hours a month face to face time on average (transitioning tenants does take a bit more work). Our daily and weekly operations are taken care of through Google Docs, email, and real estate management software. None of this takes up much time either; it’s clean, efficient and gets the job done. It took us a few years of filling our time with weekly meetings and conversations about conversations to finally look at our process and say, is this time well spent? (all things being equal marriage and kids also helped facilitate that conversation). Looking at this it does make me wonder about the structures larger organizations do have in place. Are they effective? Hierarchical? Great in theory and flawed in implementation? The more a leader can take a step back and allow for a level the playing field, the more he or she can empower his or her employees. Once this happens, then the need to spend countless hours with everyone in a room listening to each other talk in circles lessens. Also, the less of a chance the Meeting Troll has to rear its ugly head.
So what does all this mean in terms of leadership? Management? Time? Difficult employees who are very adept at high jacking meetings and sucking the life out of an organization? Technology? I think it is simple: be authentic-give credit where credit is due, keep a low ego, invite discourse and welcome change and growth; be innovative-be a leader in your field, get connected (especially digitally) to what’s current, be willing to work hard to push the envelope and invite others into the process; and be smart-know what really needs to be focused on and what doesn’t (in education we teach kids to pull ‘essential info’ from text…what’s nice to know vs. need to know—this should be the case in organizations as well), correctly use technology to become efficient without losing clarity of what you are trying to do, and, my apologies to Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, be the Third Billy Goat who is so big he knocks the Troll off the bridge so to never be seen again!