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Stop People from Wasting Your Time

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There's a fine line between helping people and letting them waste your time. Here is how to draw that line for yourself.

Adam Grant, a famously responsive Wharton professor, told me that on an “average day” he’ll spend 3-4 hours answering messages.


I relate to this -- I can never find time for phone calls.

State your preferred method of communication. For years, millennials have famously eschewed phone calls — but almost everyone has a communication preference of some sort. Regina Walton, a social media and community manager, told me that she, too, hates talking on the phone, a habit she developed after years of living abroad; email is almost always better for her, as “I can respond when I have time and usually am very fast to reply.” You can often limit aggravation (and harassment via multiple channels) by proactively informing colleagues about the best way to reach you, whether it’s via phone calls, texts, emails, or even tweets.

This seems like overkill:

Force others to prepare. We all hope and expect that others will prepare for meetings with us. Surprisingly often, they don’t. Even when they’re requesting the meeting, they may have done very little research and waste our time with extremely basic questions they could have Googled. Instead, we need to force others to prepare in advance. “Force” is a harsh word, and that’s intentional ­— because it’s not burdensome for people who would have prepared anyway, yet it effectively weeds out the uncommitted. Debbie Horovitch, a specialist in Google+ Hangouts, has long offered complimentary initial strategy sessions, but realized that some people were taking advantage with irrelevant discussions.

She’s adopted a new policy: “Everyone who wants a call/chat with me must fill in an application” with specific questions about what will be discussed. “Now that I’ve set my boundaries and expectations of the people I work with, it’s much easier to identify the time wasters.” Similarly, when people request informational interviews with me, I’ve begun sending them a document with links to articles I’ve written about their area of interest (becoming a consultant or speaker, reinventing their careers, etc.) and asking them to get back in touch after they’ve read them to see what questions they still have. Most never get back to me, which is just as well ­— I only want to speak with people who are interested and committed.

...but the other suggestions (require an agenda for meetings, police the guest list) are legit.

The fully allocated cost of togetherness for companies is extremely high. And conventional company meetings are some of the biggest time sucks and cost factors to organizations around the world... even the notion of pre-published agendas isn't good enough to save teams from lowest common denominator ambitions, discussions focused on competing activities and worse–meandering and endless cycles of checking in with everyones feelings and opinions about the topics at hand.  Here is where meeting to meet, planning to plan and yadda yadda yadda waylays the best intentions of bright and capable people, "Dear Lord, when will anything ever get done!?" Not any time soon... 

"I know, why don't we schedule another meeting to discuss it!"

A few principles I've learned and used with my clients for their success in organizational development and innovation has produced a few decades worth of proven upgrades over the traditional agenda-based meeting:

1. Meetings don't have agendas.  Meetings only get scheduled when they have a clear result target of a desired outcome needing to be achieved AND when the desired outcome needed cannot be achieved by unilateral actions of independent parties.  If somebody can just go off and get the desired outcome done unilaterally, then just post what will be done to whomever needs prior knowledge and then go get it done.  No meeting necessary.

2. Attendees to any meeting must have a direct and/or contributory stake in the explicitly defined and desired outcome.  Necessary parties are only people who without their presence the outcome would be impossible to achieve (e.g. approval authorities, resource contributors, skill and expertise providers, etc.).  Said another way, "If we can get the desired outcome accomplished without you, don't come to the meeting!"  Eliminate redundant parties to meetings–they add significant costs to the meeting through their allocated time as well as the time wasted by other attendees who must then be distracted by such parties being courteously introduced, listened to for their input and etc.

3. Meeting results may or may not need to be shared with others: only share meeting details with those others that need the details as an essential part of improving their work progress–if people don't need meeting details to achieve better results then don't send them.  "Nice to know" information is neither nice nor knowing–the knowing is in the doing.  Simple one line descriptions of results are always better, for all parties: those that will not use information will ignore it, and those that need to know more in their work will follow up to get the necessary goods.

Optional:  no chairs in any meeting rooms to keep parties focused on results.  Time compression builds and sustains the energy of participants and meetings should not take a moment longer than necessary.  Strive not to muddle up meetings with socializing or creative work–a work meeting should serve one purpose and one purpose only–to focus on an explicit result that people attending will collaborate on and contribute to achieving.

Social and creative activities are extremely valuable and as such should be given their own settings, time allotments, participants and principles for greater satisfaction of all considered–keep the purpose of all business meetings focused on achieving effective business results and you'll get them.  

Or don't and just burn even more investor money and employee time.

When I worked at UF the president had a spacious office .... with two very uncomfortable wooden chairs only, facing his desk.  Message received!

#2, however: Large organizations with strict heirarchies, often imposed for all the wrong reasons (power grabs), hurt themselves by excluding insights from the front-line staff.  I know a group publisher who requires his underling publishers to perform the job of field personnel, quaerterly.  Prevents silos.

Go Gators!

The outcome meeting format merely sets the environment and expectations of where everyone is going, not the quality of the participants involved.  

And some big companies can learn to make the most of their people at the highest levels of quality participation by encouraging a culture of good outcome decision making at all levels, not just within leadership as the exclusive purview of their power...

In fact, the best leadership teams I've worked with learned how to institutionalize decentralizing decisions of consequence by encouraging front line troops to reframe the problem and establish the sandbox, innovate on their best tactics to achieve better than baseline results, and lead all day to day decisions by real world effectiveness that aligned with the grander, strategic vision.

End users and front line people always leading the innovation huddle, always--whether employees or customers! 

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