The Vortex

USS_Enterprise-D_consumed_by_energy_vortexWe Navy types are a proudly hard-working breed. However much we may grumble, I think that most of us have that little psychotic voice that enjoys the long hours when we know we are legitimately needed—when the ship gets underway because we got it done, underneath the haze of sleep-deprived delirium is an incredible sense of validation. Most of us will work until we collapse, when we know the work has a purpose.

What truly crushes the spirit are not the long hours, but the unnecessary hours—the time-wasters that consume our days and prevent us from doing our real jobs. They are simply black holes, where man-hours are sucked in and quietly annihilated. No reward, no sense of accomplishment—just an empty space in time.

Meetings are one of the most painful and pervasive time vortexes we regularly endure. They are a plague to every organization in every industry, and they only get worse as you move up. They are universally understood as low-utility time-destroyers for most attendees, but they are also universally understood to be necessary. Every meeting includes at least one person who thinks it’s worthwhile, and that person usually outranks the rest of us—so meetings will always be a simple fact of life. With that in mind, here are a few points to consider the next time you navigate the vortex—whether it as a helpless attendee, or later when you’re running the show.

Time is incredibly valuable. In the business world, they say that time is money. There are many levels of nuance to this phrase, but at the most basic level it is a calculation of labor costs: the price of a time-intensive task is (man-hours consumed) x (avg. hourly pay). This doesn’t account for opportunity costs, such as an expensive delay elsewhere due to the time-intensive priority tasking, but it is useful as a back-of-the-envelope swag.

The labor costs analogy doesn’t really work in enormous bureaucratic organizations like the Navy. We’re running ships, not profit centers, and we’re not paid by the hour. From an extremely myopic perspective that ignores a thousand human performance factors, it makes sense to waste people’s time. If you go home at three when I could keep you until six, I just lost three man-hours.

Who cares if the time would have been well-utilized; it doesn’t cost me anything to keep you around. Who cares if it takes you two hours and fourteen checklists to perform a ten-minute procedure; your time has no value to me. This is the way that bureaucracies are incentivized to operate, and exactly what they will do without a dedicated, determined leadership effort to correct it. These are the same organizations that chant, in between sips of Kool-Aid, “People are our most valued resource.”

Time, then, is not money. For us, it is much more valuable: Time is credibility. Our inventory of it is painfully limited, and we piss it away at our peril. The respect we show for our people’s time is a direct communication of the respect we have for them as individuals, and this form of communication is more meaningful than a thousand motivating speeches. There’s no way you can avoid consuming your people’s time, but never do it lightly or arbitrarily. Never waste it.

Somebody is always in charge. This is the case for meetings just like anything else. The person running the meeting might not be the one who decided to hold it, but they’re responsible for its efficient conduct. They run the clock, and make sure the meeting starts and ends on time. They keep the discourse on-topic and professional. They don’t apologize or promise to be brief; they just do it.

Time is credibility

The only metric for a successful meeting is progress—so never hold a meeting just because somebody or some instruction said you have to. If you can’t divine a purpose for a required meeting, then create one. The meeting leader is responsible for constructing an agenda, and more importantly, ensuring all attendees understand that agenda. Even if you got the information you needed, your meeting is not a success if the attendees don’t get anything out of it. Everyone should leave knowing who is doing what, and by when.

Recurring meetings normally follow the same pattern every time. Some of these, such as an Ops brief, require a specific person to run the meeting. Others, such as daily work coordination meetings, just need somebody to play “MC” while everybody says their piece in a certain order. For this type there’s no reason to wait for a specific meeting leader—if they’re late, the next most senior officer should step in get the ball rolling (this could be you). There’s nothing quite so ironic is a room full of officers and chiefs staring blankly at one another waiting for somebody to tell them what to do.

If you can’t be quiet, don’t be new. You’ll have to attend many meetings where your principal reason for being there is “to learn.” You will suspect that this is a huge waste of your time, and you’ll usually be correct. Try to take solace in the idea that there are other attendees whose time is even more limited than yours, and this meeting is a soul-sucking black hole for them as well.

If you’re not running the meeting, there’s very little that you can do to make it more productive, but you can refrain from making things worse. Restrain yourself from chiming in or asking questions just for the sake of doing so. If you have a legitimate question or contribution, then say your piece, but don’t feel like you have to in order to prove your worth—it doesn’t fool anybody. If you want to demonstrate your own engagement and professionalism, then deliberately pay attention and take notes. Some people do notice this kind of thing and it makes a better impression than staring off into space or falling asleep. It’s not going to win you any awards, but it will contribute to a favorable overall image.

Recap: Basic Meeting Etiquette:

  • Be on time
  • Only speak if you have a really good reason
  • Don’t showboat (try to look smart) or grandstand (try to look important)
  • Don’t use meetings to address interpersonal conflicts or air grievances
  • Don’t advertise your disinterest
  • Avoid using meetings to alert the CO to major problems (inform early)
  • Stay on-topic
  • Don’t “piggyback,” as in “to piggyback on what so-and-so said, [exactly what so-and-so said]”
  • Be inclusive– two-way conversations or debates don’t belong in a meeting
  • Practice good dudesmanship: try not to embarrass your colleagues
  • When the meeting is over, it is over– don’t chime in at the last second
  • Everything you do should be based on the assumption that time is precious

convincedWhat a good meeting looks like. There is such a thing as a good meeting. A good meeting begins on time and ends early. It is not a relaxed environment—whoever is running it sets a tone of urgency, and quickly recaptures the floor from anybody who showboats or goes off topic. Visual aids are ready to go before the meeting begins. Speakers talk fast and exchange actionable information. When speakers realize they’re digressing into a two-way conversation, they voluntarily decide to “talk offline.” Nobody repeats something already said. Everyone is in a hurry, and understands that everyone else is in a hurry. The meeting adjourns cleanly, with nobody trying to chime in at the last second. Everyone walks away knowing who is doing what, and by when.

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