Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Let's Schedule a Meeting About All These *(&*$@%~ Meetings

When my now-grown daughter was in preschool, her three closest friends were always going to meetings.  While the other three-year-olds were building towers, driving trucks and  bossing baby dolls around, these girls were rehearsing for a life in the League of Women Voters, like their mothers.  That life, as far as they could tell, consisted of going early, and going often, to meetings.  Their busy calendars directed them to frequent departures and constant assemblies.  The scripts for these gatherings were simple and predictable, calling for sitting down around a table or a living room, and talking.  Drinking coffee, and talking.  Talking, and talking.  These girls had never heard of Peter Drucker.

To Peter Drucker, who penned his classic The Effective Executive in 1967, meetings are a symptom of what he terms "malorganization."
Meetings are by definition a concession to a deficient organization. For one either meets or one works. One can not do both at the same time.
I am not a member of the League of Women Voters, though I might have been seen as a fellow traveller of that esteemed organization at one time. I don't know if any of the three young women who were once so eager to rise to its ranks ever did so.  But I bet that wherever they are, and whatever they are doing, they, like me, are attending their fair share of meetings.  Because, as Drucker warned,
[T]here will always be more than enough meetings…Every meeting generates a host of little follow-up meetings—some formal, some informal, but both stretching out for hours.
And, while I have been pointing to attendance at meetings, and scheduling more, as "achievements" in my weekly "Done for the Week" lists, I am thinking about rethinking this.  Maybe the fifty-plus hours I have spent in meetings in the last ten weeks, in addition to the twenty-plus hours spent travelling to and from what Drucker identifies as time-wasters, are a clue to the paucity of other accomplishments on those lists.

In my defense, I am more a passive than an active participant in scheduling all these meetings.  They are generated by two entities, and their offshoots, which have come to be important to me.  One is the Unitarian Universalist church I belong to.  UUs are famous for meeting, and for coffee, as seen in this much-circulated UU "joke:"

What would cause a crisis of faith in a Unitarian?
Offering one a choice between coffee hour and a discussion of coffee hour!

I'm probably not going to do much to change the culture of a denomination, so my only hope is to continue to avoid additional long-term committee membership, and election to office.  (Since I've been pressed into service at past annual meetings as the quasi-self-trained parliamentarian, I can always rule my nomination out of order, as a last ditch measure.)  

The other, and most egregious, meeting-spawner in my life is a nonprofit social justice organization of congregations to which my church belongs.  In this organization, I wear so many hats, I feel like Bartholomew Cubbins (of the 500 hats).  And each of these head coverings comes with its own endless round of--you guessed it--m-e-e-t-i-n-g-s.  Even though Drucker told us, forty-three years ago, that

above all, meetings have to be the exception rather than the rule. An organization where everybody meets all the time is an organization in which no one gets anything done. Wherever a time log shows the fatty degeneration of meetings—whenever, for instance people in an organization find themselves in meetings a quarter of their time or more—there is time-wasting malorganization.
Recent weeks have seen task forces, subcommittees and "collaboratives" generating sub-subcommittees and offshoots, like so many headless worm segments.  Or like the brooms and buckets of the sorcerer's apprentice.  The musical score of this way-way-off Broadway production communicates the same frenzy of Disney's version of that old tale, where Mickey bravely battles the resulting currents, but in vain.
It may just be time, in the interests of productivity, to go on a meeting diet.  Or maybe, even though we're halfway through, and even though I'm a Unitarian, I could give them up for Lent.

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