How much time in businesses is spent fulfilling unproductive corporate practices that add little value? I'd guess it's a lot. And I'm guessing you think the same. I'm sure you recognise Matthew Parris's vivid description of the curse of e-mail, the kind of electronic turmoil generated by copy-in and reply-all which have meant that our devices long ago passed the tipping point at which they ceased to be labour-saving and became work-generating machines ("my pending e-inbox is a sort of half-abstract infinity, stretching back to January, peppered with the unintended discourtesies of non-reply, of some of which I'm vaguely and guiltily aware; and others of which I've totally forgotten, each growing ruder by the week as I put off the old and firefight the new"). And I probably don't need to tell you what this means for people whose life outside of work is being increasingly encroached upon by the always-on expectation of always-connected devices.
And what about all those meetings? John Linwood, Chief Technology Officer of the BBC, recently complained about a meeting culture at the Beeb rooted in accountability, ownership around decisions and fueled by ambiguity, and an unwillingness to take risks: “I am pretty sure that most of us were recruited for our intellectual capability and yet how much of our days do we spend just thinking, using the key attributes that the BBC hired us for?”.
The answer is not always to sit in a windowless room with a bunch of other people and a plate of biscuits. A recent study suggests that instead of enhancing creativity, brainstorming sessions involving multiple people may actually generate less ideas and a narrower focus than if those people brainstormed individually, because of a "collaborative fixation" on particular ideas due to the fact that we mirror ideas in meetings, until we all become fixated on the same thing.
Not all meetings are bad of-course but reading this Guardian piece I was reminded of a Paul Graham essay I read last year that draws a distinction between what he calls a 'maker's schedule' and a 'manager's schedule'. Makers (creative types, writers, programmers, do-ers) prefer to use time in units of at least half a day since you can't complete a project or write or program well in anything less. Managers use time in a different way, typically segmenting time into one-hour slots. Several hours can be blocked off to complete a specific task, but the default is that you change what you do every hour. For those on a manager's schedule, a meeting is simply a matter of finding an open slot and booking it in . But when you're operating on the maker's schedule meetings can be a disaster, since one meeting can blow the whole afternoon by breaking it up into chunks too small to do anything truly productive with. The different types of schedule can work in isolation but problems arise, says Paul, when they meet. And since most bosses operate on the manager's schedule "they're in a position to make everyone resonate at their frequency if they want to."
Habitual organisational behaviour generates its own momentum and reinforces itself over time. So we should work hard to break the habit. And do it now. Particularly if, in searching for a way out, you recognise yourself in this: