Monday, November 29, 2010

In defense of (some) meetings

These days the easiest way to try and get some business rebel street cred is to blog about how wasteful meetings are. But if you are a vendor or consultant who has to work with large companies, you already understand or need to understand the culture that drives the scheduling of all these meetings and use it to your advantage.

As someone who (fortunately or unfortunately - take your pick) ascended to a management role in my previous job and had his calendar fill with meetings while "real work" had to be done at night, I understand the call for less meetings. Meetings were easily the single biggest work/life balance killer I experienced.

What drives all these meetings? I would argue it's because of a classic, decade's old, command and control culture, pure and simple. Command and control tends to breed mild paranoia, politicalization of decision making, and a cover your ass mentality. The result being the need to have meetings to discuss absolutely everything of any consequence (or cc: 20 people on practically every email you send.)

Understanding this reality is the key to successfully working with a large company on your project.

When a company engages us for a consulting gig in addition to buying our software, we know we are one of several activities the people we're working with have going on. So we too have to use meetings. Minimally we do three things:

  1. Create a workplan with tasks and assignments for each task and update it and distribute it regularly;

  2. Insist on a weekly status meeting which we usually facilitate;

  3. Don't let more than 2-3 days go by without useful communication with the team we're working with, either via email or phone meeting. "Useful" can be proactively helping with some of the work they've been assigned or providing an interesting insight.

This is total overkill for any internal projects in a small company, but they help us exist within the command and control structure of a larger one. Because what we're really doing is:

  1. Making people accountable on a document everyone can see;

  2. Creating a mild fear of someone having to say they haven't gotten something done in front of their peers by having the live weekly meetings. This means things get done and it's harder to blow you off;

  3. Keeping us top of mind and making their lives easier, not more difficult.

Eventually the day will come when corporate culture does not dictate this level of interaction with its business partners and working on projects with your Fortune 500 clients will feel more like working on your own internal projects. Until that day comes however, you'll need to take off your "no more meetings" t-shirt, adapt, and try and use meetings to your advantage. In fact, we've found it's critical to understand this culture to have a successful project. Attempts to stray far from this reality and take ourselves out of the "control" part of the equation have largely failed.

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