The truth behind time vortexes

Making meetings work for you, and everybody else.

For the last three months, I realized I’ve been going in and out of time vortexes. These gaping holes that seem to suck the precious seconds off my limited lifespan (and attention span). I used to go home feeling like I’ve built Rome, but there was little to show. These were the “I was so busy today” days. And by I was so busy, what I really meant was I spent my day running from one meeting to another.

I was scared as to what someone would think if I skipped one of those meetings. And then finally, Achalanka spoke! Achalanka Dalawella is a lean six sigma black belt at Hemas Hospitals, and he did a session at the annual kickoff on having meetings that work. He’s the kind of guy who I’d imagine to be a literal black belt of sorts, chopping and kicking big blobs of sluggishness and unproductivity (is that even a word.

Achalanka brought two big concepts to make our meetings better. I’m going to talk about the first one; meeting etiquette.

What he said was, most of the time, people at a meeting don’t know what exactly they should be doing, and what exactly their role is. Ambiguity is the underlying themes to most meetings (including ours). And good meeting etiquette eliminates ambiguity.

Don’t treat meetings like Sri Lankan weddings.

We Sri Lankans take invitations quite seriously. We tend to pull a fuss and toss up the town if we’re not invited for this that and the other, even if we add little value to it. As a result, we end up inviting people we really don’t want to, but have to, because if not- they’d be really upset. (for my wedding, I had a “people I have to invite, but don’t need to” list. for real)

But you don’t need to carry that attitude to work as well. For work meetings, invite only the ones who need to action to move the initiative forward. Don’t invite people to keep them in the loop, or to “get their input”, or because you assume the meeting is relevant to them. Clear it up, and articulate to yourself what the exact outcomes of the meeting is going to be, and the right people to drive those outcomes. Don’t create that invite without you first knowing this.

Make it clear

Now you’ve sent the invite. But maybe the person on the receiving end doesn’t know what you do; the outcomes of the meeting and their role. It’s your job to clarify it to them and not make an assumption about it. This is true especially for meetings regarding new initiatives, otherwise you’d have a lot of people clueless people sitting there or worse, not many showing up because they don’t think it’s important — because they don’t know their role, or the outcome of the meeting.

Having clear outcomes

This can’t be understated. We’ve all been in countless meetings where the outcome is unclear, and felt like a complete waste of time (and probably is). Define what the outcome is, so the facilitator can make sure the whole group stays on track. This gets a bit difficult especially when these detours are people venting about other issues, because they think it’s connected to the issue whereas it’s just them venting because they’ve got no other place to vent. Write it on the board. Put a post-it on your forehead. Make sure everyone knows what the meeting is about.

You can reply to calendar invites! (Surprise!)

So maybe you don’t know why you got the calendar invite. instead of flatly refusing, and hitting the decline button, hit reply and ask the initiator what it’s about and what your role is. Then decide whether you’d want to accept or decline.

It’s ok to decline. It really is.

If everything goes according to meeting etiquette, and you don’t have a clear role in the meeting it’s ok to decline. You’re declining the meeting invite, not the person itself. What’s impolite is you being at a meeting not knowing what it’s about and/or not knowing what you specifically are supposed to do. Just keep in mind that when you decline, it’s good meeting etiquette to let the person know why it is you’re declining. Be specific.

And if you’re the meeting initiator, don’t be mean if someone declines a meeting. Especially if you feel they’re needed for the meeting. Maybe there is a gap in them knowing that they’re needed. Or they’ve got something that’s of higher priority. You have to now use other means to get that desired outcome (even if it means pushing that outcome by a few days or weeks)

That being said, having super effective meetings 100% of the time may not be realistic. But hey, at least we can try. right?

Oh and also, Start the meeting on time, finish it on time and most importantly, be there on time.