Bullshit Bingo and Bloody Meetings
Retirement rescued me from godawful meetings. On occasions, my soul left my body to escape the relentless monotony of committees, sub-committees and working groups.
All these gatherings create the appearance of activity and purpose. In reality, the wheels are spinning without attaining any forward motion. Still, I knew people who built careers from nothing else.
Large organisations cling to the belief that sitting people in a room with an agenda produces something meaningful. The ugly truth is different. Research from the USA points to 67 per cent of meetings achieving nothing of value. I'm surprised that the figure is not 95 per cent.
Also, research shows that meetings have increased in length and frequency over the decades. Top US executives spend an average of nearly 23-hours a week in meetings; this is up from less than 10 hours in the 1960s. My own experience mirrors that steady increase. You'd think with modern communications we'd need fewer meetings. Why are we going the other way?
I had a few bosses who conflated the mindless minutia of meeting protocols as professionalism. These notions allowed them to revel in process, agendas and the constant checking of minutes to interpret meaning. Poor grammar would vex them in the extreme, as the wretched meeting secretary took a verbal lashing. Never-mind that any substance was lacking, as long as the punctuation is correct.
Over my 35-years in the police, despite the enormous time and energy spent in committees, I can't recall a moment when I felt 'that was truly worthwhile'. I do remember the day a middle-ranking officer, in frustration, strode to the front of the room to seize control from a long-winded department head. He was then escorted away and took leave. Not a wise career move.
At the very least, you'd pray a meeting would be short; done within an hour. I felt blessed if that was possible. Unfortunately, one boss never completed a session in under four-hours during my two years under his reign.
He fancied himself as a new age management guru having read some books and done a few courses. None of this education gave him self-awareness of his narcissistic nature — the opposite.
As his weekly meeting approached, I'd feel the will to live draining away. Optimism, thoughts of output or progress, would vanish as we stood ready for another lengthy monologue from this clown.
Wrapped and shielded behind his rank, this man was smug, arrogant and unaware of his failings. Gullible newcomers or those chasing promotion at any cost would hang on his every word. The rest of us feigned interest while texting under the table.
People would take sick-leave or fake a family bereavement to avoid this man's marathon monthly meeting. Other options included having a secretary primed to call you out for an urgent phone call. Anything was worth trying to avoid hours of mediocrity with a veneer of self-idealisation. I contemplated setting off the fire alarm.
In an inspired move, a colleague claimed he suffered deep vein thrombosis that precluded him sitting too long. He'd appear at the start of the meeting, stay about twenty minutes then leave. Wish I'd thought of that.
It helped to play games that lightened the mood. A covert game of bullshit bingo between a few willing accomplices eased the pain. The boss favoured the latest management speak. He peppered his sentences with ‘low-hanging fruit', 'top-down', ‘blue-sky thinking' and such nonsense.
When feeling subversive, I'd print the bingo sheet for distribution before his meetings. As I recall, on one occasion, we had a winner within 20 minutes of the start. He never caught on.
The nadir of his odd behaviour came when for no reason that I could fathom, he decided to split us into two groups. He then proposed a motion, which we debated while he sat in judgement. This egotism of the highest order wasted our valuable time. Meanwhile, his attempts at debating proved entertaining. Hampered by the skill set of an eager six-former, he couldn't make cohesive points. It was painful to watch.
At random, he'd throw fancy new management concepts into the discussion. Applicability or relevance didn't matter. We wondered where this stuff was coming from. Then, he gave away his secret when he dumped a load of business magazines on us. Articles heavy with his marker pen took us to the culprit. A bit of internet research would provide us with counter arguments that defeated his wagi - what a good idea!
At the start of my career, I fell into the trap of believing committees had some importance. To the uninitiated the process and formality are daunting. Over time, my frustration grew.
It dawned on me that matters decided in committee faced frequent overruling on the whim of someone senior — all the deliberations and energy spent on developing solutions meant for nothing. The rank structure, allied to a culture of deference, usurped everything.
Nonetheless, I suppose meetings in various forms are central to organisational life. Well-run sessions are a vehicle for communication and can allow the exchange of ideas.
One danger is always that the chair hijacks the meeting for their personal needs. A rule of thumb I developed — 'a senior's effectiveness is inversely proportional to his meeting length'. That theory proved robust.
When I arrived at the point in my career where I could control the length of meetings, I kept them short. Moreover, I'd insist others do the same and the minutes be a record of decisions taken only.
Lastly, I switched the locations around. One time, I held a committee meeting while walking with ten others through a park. That was memorable.
If bosses want to do themselves a favour, cut down the meetings. Staff can then get on with their work. Also, self-check what you are talking about and stay on topic.