The Hamster Revolution
By Mike Song, Vicki Halsey
and Tim Burress
Berrett-Koehler, 151 pages, $25.95
Iris was doomed to run from one meeting to another, like a hamster on a wheel. Indeed, the national sales manager at a media company was starting to look like a hamster herself when she boarded an airplane and fortuitously found herself seated next to a productivity consultant with a passion for improving meetings.
Sound unlikely? You're right. It's a fable.
But if the scenario is a fantasy, the problem it addresses is very real: how, like a hamster, we are constantly on the run, overwhelmed by attending endless, mostly unproductive meetings.
And if you want to stop spinning your own wheels, the consultants who wrote the fable - Mike Song, Vicki Halsey and Tim Burress - offer solutions that are realistic enough for you to consider in your company.
To meet less, they say you have to POSE the right questions - POSE being an acronym for priority, "objenda" (hold on for that to be explained), shorten and "e-vailable."
When you're invited to a meeting, instead of automatically attending if you aren't already booked for that time, check your priorities. That means, of course, having some priorities that you have developed, perhaps 10 annual goals on a document that you can quickly review by clicking an icon on your computer toolbar.
Then check if the meeting has an objective and an agenda - what the consultants, by mashing those two elements into one word, call an objenda. The objective is the destination for the meeting and the agenda is the road map that plots the route for getting there. If the meeting lacks those two essentials, it will probably be rudderless, a meandering gathering that fails to achieve much. And, obviously, if you are convening a meeting, you should develop an objenda.
If you plan to attend a meeting, see if you can shorten it, to avoid a day of what the authors call meeting dominos - back-to-back sessions that cause chaos because one starts just when the other ends.
That's done out of habit, or because the electronic calendar software at most workplaces defaults to 30-minute or 60-minute intervals. Schedule 50-minute meetings instead of 60-minute meetings (and substitute 20-minute meetings for any 30-minute sessions in your day), allowing a buffer to relax and get other things done. Push to convert as many meetings as possible to those shorter time frames, and also try to create a workplace culture where there's a ground rule to arrive five minutes early for a meeting so it can start on time.
Finally, in the POSE approach, you have to make sure your electronic calendar reflects your true availability, if colleagues can check your schedule electronically. Allot time in the calendar for administrative activities, such as completing expense reports, personal and family commitments and prep time for meetings.
To help the meetings you organize be more effective, the authors recommend creating a draft note in your e-mail message software that you can copy and paste when inviting others to attend. It might include headings for the objective, agenda, materials needed, logistics (such as Web links and passwords for virtual meetings) and ground rules. Just fill in the details and send. This forces you to think through the details for a successful meeting, and confirm to others that preparatory thinking has been completed.
To improve virtual meetings, the authors recommend upgrading phone meetings to Web meetings or even teleconferences, since they induce more involvement. Call on everyone to speak, starting with the quiet ones.
As well, plan a variety of interactive activities every five to 10 minutes in order to engage all present. That might involve an icebreaker at the start; a quick survey in which you pose a provocative question and participants hit the nine key on their phone pad if they agree; better use of images and charts; or a trip to a competitor's website to animate a discussion on competitive positioning, with everyone going to that link at the same time.
To stay on course in meetings, appoint an "objenda defender," who watches the clock and ensures you move toward your stated objective by interrupting when a tangent topic arises. The objenda defender will recommend a course of action:
If the new topic is more important and urgent than the issue at hand, discuss it now.
If it's important but not urgent, discuss it at the next meeting.
If it's urgent but not particularly important, take it "offline." Those needing to discuss it can do so later.
If it's neither important nor urgent, ignore it.
You never know what helpful advice you'll pick up on a plane - or in a book. This is a quick read, with many good ideas and accompanying advice on exactly how to implement them, down to the specific steps of how to get your year's priorities on your computer toolbar. Since everyone is a meeting hamster these days, you may want to stop spinning your wheels and try the book.
IN ADDITION / TIME MANAGEMENT
Pigs don't worry about time, but we do. In What's Time To A Pig? (Vantic Consulting, 181 pages, $19.95), Markham, Ont.-based consultant Douglas Stewart offers advice on time management - getting organized, managing your calendar, avoiding over-commitment and ensuring better work-life balance.
His prime message is that we have become action junkies, enjoying extinguishing fires that we help set for ourselves. By following some of his advice, we can move to a saner way of operating at work.
His writing style is somewhat windy, but what's time to you when seeking productivity advice? There are some useful ideas, buttressed by an informed discussion of some of the key issues of time management with which we all struggle.