Meetings Are Toxic

The title to this post comes from the title of a chapter in a book I recently read called, Rework by Fried and Hansson. It’s meant to be a business book and almost all of its suggestions go against conventional wisdom. For example, in the chapter mentioned, the authors consider meetings one of the “worst interruptions” and they go on to make the following points about meetings:

  • They’re usually about abstract concepts, and not real things.
  • They usually convey a small amount of information per minute.
  • They require thorough preparation that most don’t have time for.
  • They frequently have agendas so vague that nobody is really sure of the goal.
  • Meetings procreate. One meeting leads to another meeting leads to another . . .

The authors had more, but some weren’t quite as civil. They also talked about the loss of productivity. Just think of 40 people attending a one-hour meeting when they could be more productive doing something else. That’s just not one lost hour for an organization, that’s 40 hours of lost productivity if the meeting is meaningless. For some, that’s a whole week of work! Now start multiplying that by the number of meetings in a year and you get the authors’ point.

Another chapter that resonated with me was one called “Decommoditize your product.” Here, the authors suggested that “if you’re successful, people will try to copy what you do.” To protect yourself from that, you have to be unique. That is one of the main reasons I am against scripted curriculums. Anyone at any school can read a script, but does that mean they can teach? The book uses Zappos.com as an example, a company which allows their customer-service representatives to speak “at length with customers” and do so without a script. Pour ‘yourself’ into your business, school, or whatever it is you do. “Competitors can never copy the you in the product.” They give a good example of companies that have tried to be the next iPod killer. Well, Apple is defining what that is, the rest are just copying. Microsoft’s Kinect is an example where they have just taken a giant leap in gaming. It’s unique. They have defined a new product. Now watch others try and copy them.

Another chapter that resonated with me was called,” Start at the epicenter.” The chapter mentions the stuff you could do, want to do, and have to do.  The authors suggest starting at the have to do. When I think about how this relates to all areas of teaching (at our school we use the Charlotte Danielson Framework for Teaching), none of those suggest attending meetings. “Participating in a professional community,” can mean so many more things than showing up to meetings. Furthermore the framework speaks to the comment above about being unique and asks teachers to do a myriad of things that only each individual teacher can do. A lot of what I have to do is know my students well, communicate with their parents, prepare instruction for their individual needs, continue to grow as a teacher, work with my colleagues, know my stuff, and teach it well. For example, I have to write report cards. It’s not my favorite kind of writing or how I like to spend my time , but communicating with students’ parents is an important and crucial part of being a teacher.

Many of the things teachers are told they have to do, don’t fit Danielson’s framework and take away from a teacher’s primary role. If you’ve read Daniel Pink’s book Drive about what motivates us, you will have read that things like meetings, standardization, loss of autonomy and individuality actually kills motivation.

The book Rework can at times be irreverent, but often makes one stop to think about what they’re doing or what they’re being asked to do, and whether it is relevant to student achievement. Schools and education are often the slowest institutions to change, but for an independent school, not bogged down by the type of bureaucracy many public schools are forced to deal with, change can and should take place faster.

Another nugget from the book: Hire the best writers. Whether it’s sales, teaching, or designing, “their writing skills will pay off…. Great writers know how to communicate. They make things easy to understand. They can put themselves in someone else’s shoes. They know what to omit. And those are qualities you want in any candidate.”

I’m still working on knowing what to omit. Brevity is not a strength of mine. I would definitely recommend this book as it’s a short read, and one that provokes thought. One last thought from the book: meetings aren’t that bad if they do the following:

  • End in fewer minutes than scheduled if that is all the time it takes. Don’t stretch it out to the time allotted just for the sake of filling the time.
  • Begin with a specific problem that can be solved and make someone responsible for implementing it.
  • Invite only those necessary, keep the others productive in some other way.
  • Always have a clear agenda.
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4 thoughts on “Meetings Are Toxic

  1. A veteran principal I worked with for years would conduct one big faculty meeting per month. December was to be meeting-free. This was even before the days of email. We just sought each other out in person, by phone or with a note in a mailbox. It worked and we were respectfully handed extra hours per month.

  2. in “4hr Work Week” and Ferris focused in on this subject as well, even giving tips on how to avoid (unnecessary) phone calls and meetings and still get the information and utilize it.

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