Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Meeting minutes

I am on an unceasing quest to pare the inefficiencies from my work day. I've been thinking about what 30 minutes means in concrete terms. I've been cursing the chaos email brings into my life. I've been thinking about how the discipline and sheer word count required for blogging makes me a leaner, meaner writing machine.

Now I'm thinking about meetings, and minutes.

Last week, I turned to the cursed email to spend five minutes crafting a meeting call sent to a representative from every department on campus. That five minutes, I began to marvel, was generating a minimum of 75 potential hours of work. If you consider that I was asking 50 people to give me 90 minutes of their time? If they all come, that's nearly two full weeks of full time work. It's happening concurrently, but it's still 75 hours of faculty member labour. Never mind the time spent by any of those people dealing with the email, and the calendaring, or whatever. And never mind the administrative support I get to book the room, get some coffee and donuts, manage the RSVP list, send out reminder emails.

This gave me pause. I've been to a lot of giant meetings, many quite poorly run and diffuse, and thought, "Oh well, that's an hour of my life I'll never get back." But multiply that hour by all the attendees and it's a pretty significant work-time investment! And yet, the biggest meetings are the ones that usually seem the least useful, right?

I'm heading a different committee--this one has three of us on it, and we recently met for an hour and a half. Holy smokes we got a lot covered! But one thing we did settle on was that between us we would conduct individual interviews with every faculty member in the department. Again, without really factoring in all the emails and cat herding this involves, for a twenty minute interview with about twenty people, with two faculty members per meeting, that's ... 800 minutes, or about 13 hours of people time. I've done five interviews already, and they've all been really useful. So my second observation is that smaller meetings tend to get more done.

In general, then, the big meetings use up acres and acres of faculty time, and generally don't get much done (in my experience) while the smaller meetings, even if labour intensive, are far less so, and often much more useful.

So when I'm requesting meetings, in future, I'm going to do two things. First, I'm going remember the above law. Let's call it Morrison's Law of Meetings. Second, I'm going to calculate the actual number of hours of work my meeting generates for others, and to try to be mindful of making good use of that time.

There are other ways to calculate the value of a meeting: like, if I'm thinking about my time, I might prefer to meet with 50 people at once to get across what I want to convey. But that's more a lecture, actually than a meeting. If I think about meetings as interactive activities where each participant has something valuable to contribute, this particular calculus is less compelling than the one I describe above.

I don't really like meetings. Who does? But I think we can make them more useful and less wasteful by really thinking hard about what we're trying to accomplish, and what the real cost is. Now that I'm in a position that puts me in charge of creating meetings that others are supposed to attend, I need to really keep that in mind.

1 comment:

  1. Right, right, right. Big meetings are useful when they also serve a larger political purpose, e.g. when it's important that everyone in a group has a shot at being included and they're not also going to be part of a smaller meeting, I think. But then you have to take some extra time to make it an event that doesn't waste the time of the people there ... invest some of your time as an organizer to think through what the meeting is for and how to get it done in a large group. What can you plausibly give to people in writing in advance and expect them to read it (in either useful sense of that phrase... i.e., they will have actually read it so you can discuss it or presume it, or if they haven't read it you can browbeat them into silence because they're unprepared)?

    Similarly, it's worth learning how to chair a sizable meeting. Being able to keep the danged thing moving, even if it involves cutting some, er, discussion-enthusiasts off now and then, is a mercy to everyone and, as the math in your post makes clear, a real time saver.

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