Bloody meetings (and how to make them work for you)

Stephen Halliday used to hate pointless meetings until he found a way to exploit the tedium

October 29, 2017
business meeting
Source: istock

I was intrigued by books editor Matthew Reisz’s article, and particularly by the reference to a “whole workday taken up with meetings – and then they spend their evenings and weekends on their real work”. But, quite early in my career, I found a solution to this particular menace to productive output.

Like most people in the world of higher education, from which I retired 11 years ago after 25 years, I was required to spend a great deal of time in meetings, usually with at least two dozen people present. I had come from a well-run food manufacturing company, where meetings rarely involved more than 10 people and were short, sharp and to the point. Some meetings were held standing up to encourage brevity.

Even with a well-conducted meeting in higher education (a rare event), any single agenda item under discussion was likely to involve no more than four or five of those present. The rest of us were simply wasting our time. Many were happy with this: they were people with time to waste who lived empty, pointless lives and volunteered to attend meetings to escape the tiresome business of teaching, writing and research.

The student representatives were rarely the sharpest tools in the box and chose to attend such meetings rather than reading books or playing football. Then, about five years after I entered the world of higher education, I read the obituary of an eminent professor of Arabic who was a fellow of an Oxbridge college. In reference to the professor’s history of a Middle Eastern country, the obituarist wrote: “Much of this work was written in college meetings.”

This got me thinking.

The work concerned was widely admired as definitive in its field. If he could do it, why shouldn’t I? I began surreptitiously by taking proofs of books and articles to read and correct. Such activities can easily be carried out while giving the impression that they are connected with the matter under discussion. If anyone noticed, they didn’t seem to mind.

Then I grew bolder and took marking, a job best done without interruption or telephone calls. When the meeting was discussing some item to which I could make no useful contribution (most of the time), I would get on with my marking. On the rare occasions that a contribution was required from me, I laid down my pen and spoke.

After a while, I developed antennae that enabled me to tune into a discussion with which I was not originally concerned. For example, there was an agenda item “library facilities”, usually an item of stupefying tedium, so I got on with my marking until a student representative complained that the lack of photocopying facilities in the library meant that he needed to queue for half an hour to copy an article.

I immediately tuned back in and asked him how long the article was. It was two pages. I observed that in less than half an hour he could have read and annotated the article and added: “I know some students believe that photocopying text is a substitute for reading it but it seems counterproductive when the photocopying takes longer than the reading.” The wind now in my sails, I added that if all the photocopying machines were removed from the library, students would read and learn more. A stunned silence followed after which the meeting proceeded to the next agenda item and I resumed my marking. 

Eventually, people did begin to notice what I was doing but no one complained and a few enterprising spirits began to follow my example. If anyone had complained I was ready with my answer: “I have no contribution to make to the matter under discussion. It doesn’t involve me and I know nothing about it. This is my attempt to raise the productive output of the organisation.”

After I retired, the minute-taker at one of the meetings, who had by now risen to high office, told me that everyone knew what I was up to but that no one dared challenge me. I eventually graduated to following the example of my eminent predecessor and writing books in meetings.

Some will say that I probably shouldn’t have been at the meeting at all. Correct, but attendance is often prescribed by pointless rules and protocols, usually drawn up by people whose existence depends on attendance at meetings and who are fit for little else.

Try it. It worked for me.

Stephen Halliday worked in higher education for 25 years.

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