Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Do Meetings Make us Dumber? Thoughts on calendars and the Tyranny of Outlook

Happy New Year!

This is the time of Resolutions and new goals for the year ahead. Lose some weight. Exercise more. Spend more time with family. Take up a new hobby. Only the truly dedicated make it past the Super Bowl in keeping their commitments.

One of my constant resolutions is to have fewer meetings. Not that all meetings are bad – many move things forward in a way that email just can’t do. Yet we have all experienced what I call the “Tyranny of Outlook.” I have mentioned this topic in this blog and elsewhere in the past. It isn’t that Outlook is inherently a bad tool. Outlook doesn’t schedule meetings, people schedule meetings.

In January 2007, I had a unique experience in my professional career. I was a senior executive leading the technology and product development teams for The Members Group and our executive team agreed we needed to move quickly on our strategy for the agent-issuing credit card market (for those not in our business this is where one financial institution issues a credit card for another financial institution or association – think your university alumni card). I was leading the initiative to develop the strategy but many things were getting in the way. There were always day-to-day responsibilities to attend to before I could spend time digging into the business plan. In what was a pretty radical move for us, our team agreed that I would give up my day-to-day responsibilities for 90 days and finish the plan – either it was a go or no-go at the end of March. We called it a Sprint Project. We announced this to the entire organization and I turned over all but a few minor responsibilities and devoted my entire focus to this project. In the end, the business plan led to the creation of TMG Financial Services, the company that I helped to found and led since 2007.

As I was working on the project, I had an insight that led me to write something for our internal company blog. It was titled “Meeting Make us Dumber.” MSNBC was citing a study that concluded that meetings actually cloud decision making rather than enhance it. I don’t know whether the conclusion was true, but I noticed during my Sprint Project that it was difficult to get help from others to build the business plan. I was totally freed up, but no one else was. They were all in back-to-back-to-back meetings. I wrote this for the blog:

I have uncovered a Blinding Flash of the Obvious (BFO) – we have lots of meetings around here.  I call it “the Tyranny of Outlook.” The calendar tools make it really easy to schedule meetings because I can see everyone’s calendar and with a few clicks of my mouse convene them all in a one-hour meeting in a conference room named after a tree (side note: many of our conference rooms are named after trees). With a few such clicks, I can monopolize someone’s entire day, even if there is not clear reason to meet. And this is on top of our already scheduled standing meetings, status meetings, client meetings, pre-client meetings and other such gatherings.

It’s nearly five years later and I’m not sure I have gotten any better at managing this environment for myself. A colleague the other day suggested that he only schedules meetings from five-after until five-til the hour (:05 to :55) rather than a full hour. After all, even in junior high you had a few minutes to move from room to room.  Not a bad suggestion. I previously have suggested that we default meetings in Outlook to ½ hour blocks and only schedule more if we absolutely need more time (as it turns out it is apparently difficult to configure Outlook to default to ½ hour blocks for an entire company).

In my estimation, the burden of the meetings and a packed calendar is the albatross of corporate America. I know that I have been amazed at how refreshed I am with just a few hours of uninterrupted work, accomplishing that one project that has been looming on my to-do list.

As I write this blog, I usually try to offer some solutions to issue I am writing about. The thing is, I am not anywhere close to having a solution for this. I have tried many systems. I was an avid Franklin Planner user and managed my daily planning with the A1, A2, B1, B2 priority system. Outlook killed that as the software was initially pretty bad and meetings were easier to schedule electronically than when people had to call to see if I was free. I have migrated to David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) system, but can’t quite get my arms around 42 folders and the In-box sorting. I have blocked time on my Outlook calendar for “work time” only to not have the discipline to keep it when something urgent comes along. I have worked outside the office at a local coffee shop (which worked better in the days before Wi-Fi and “always on” connectivity). In the end I have a modified listing-type system with a calendar separate. Even as I write this on a plane, I find that may be the last refuge of solitude (if you resist Gogo In-flight Wi-Fi).

When I talk about this issue with friends, colleagues and random strangers, it seems to resonate. Maybe a radical solution is needed. Declaring email bankruptcy (deleting all of your email and telling everyone if their email was important to resend it) or turning off access to your electronic calendar are two of my favorites. But they seem impractical for most in today’s world.

So what I think we need is a crowd-sourced resolution for this tyranny. An “Outlook Spring” of sorts. A new Tea Party, Occupy My Calendar, or whatever your mass-movement of choice is – let’s figure this out. So post your best thoughts in the comment section below or send me an email (if you must). I will award special prizes and comment on what I believe are the best solutions.

Above all, let’s see if 2012 can be the year of throwing off the yoke of calendar oppression.