I’ve been trying to use this blog to tell a few more personal stories of late — because those seem to resonate more with people than simply writing about employee engagement or city planning or true crime or whatever else I might feel like discussing — and as I was walking back from Jamba Juice today, I remembered something from a previous job that I thought could work pretty well. It’s not that amazing or humorous, but I think it might shed some light on a few poor practices in the American business world. Here goes.
Let’s start here:
- Meetings can be pretty awful.
- They can take up a lot of time.
- The approach to them should probably change.
- When they’re not in-person, chances are people are eating or checking their e-mail during them.
Let’s then go to here:
- Meetings aren’t actually real work.
- Meetings are a way of talking about work.
- When you have a lot of meetings, it prevents you from doing the work discussed in the meetings.
Alright, with me so far?
Here’s the story.
A couple of years ago, I was working at some company — we can call it Company X, but you can check my LinkedIn and figure out what it was if you want (I’m a fairly transparent person) — and we had this 1-hour meeting blocked off. I wasn’t a major cog in this meeting by any stretch of the imagination (I almost never am), but I was a person who needed to be there, yes. They were talking about some deliverable, as all meetings do, and one of the higher-up people in the meeting was doing most of the talking.
Around the 10-11 minute mark, he started talking about this person named “Dave.”
I had absolutely no fucking idea who “Dave” was. He wasn’t in this meeting. I had worked there for a while and I had no idea that anyone named Dave worked there at all. It wasn’t a huge company, but still, maybe I missed “Dave.”
I started to look around. A few people looked confused. Some were scrunching their brows, and one or two were writing notes to the person next to them. I craned my neck and saw one note:
Who is Dave?
At this point, with 10-11 people in the meeting for 20 minutes, and 10+ references to Dave, no one had stopped the senior-most person and asked for any clarity — even remotely — on who Dave was, what Dave did, or what Dave’s connection back to this project was. Within a few moments, the Dave references had exceeded 20.
As we got to the halfway mark, Dave had basically been canonized in this meeting. His views mattered the most, he seemed to be the only person we were delivering for, etc.
I wondered if maybe the CEO’s nickname was ‘Dave’ and I had missed that.
This went on-and-on, and finally the meeting ended and deliverables were handed out, and I’m sure most people ran to another meeting, then another meeting, then lunch, and finally got back to their desks around 3pm and decided to start working on the meeting objectives. That’s the American Way, but it has absolutely no connection to the way humans actually process anything.
As people were filing out, I heard about six people in the meeting say to each other, “Who the hell is Dave?”
Absolutely no one knew.
It turns out, of course, that Dave was a third-party vendor. The higher-up had been speaking to him, and assumed he had conveyed all that information to the 10-11 people in the meeting, but of course that hadn’t happened. That’s not how leadership works.
Think about this: decent-sized company, makes money, meetings held to discuss how to make more money, senior leader involved in running the meeting, and a topic/person comes up with absolutely no background context.
I was thinking about this today after Jamba Juice because this morning, at my current job, I was in a meeting and some senior leader kept talking about “Zach,” who very few people seemed to know.
Broader lesson: when you have a meeting, define the purpose. Define the people. Define the context. Make sure everyone knows why you’re there, what you’re discussing, and how you’re going to move forward with it.
In short, define Dave. Define the purpose.