The Calendar Driven Organization

I’ve had jobs where I might have one meeting a week, I’ve had a few with some type of daily status meeting, and in my current consulting role I average more than 30 meetings a week. The size of the meeting may range from me and one other person to more than twenty, with the average being five or six.

That sounds like a lot of meetings. It is. Given that meetings have a bad name for efficiency, why so many? Obviously it’s because there are a lot of things going on, and the result of that is people need to schedule their time. In many calendar appointments are the ultimate todo list, the one that is almost universally respected in an organization.

Respected? Sure. When I go to schedule a meeting I pick a time when I’m free for the amount of time I need, start adding people I need to attend, and then start looking for a block of time when everyone (or most of them) are free. It’s not unusual for that date to be weeks in the future. I’ve either to go with that date or start calling everyone to see if they can rearrange. In practice the only time schedules get changed is when an executive needs to force something into the schedule and they have an admin that can call everyone to figure it out.

It’s a common sense and courteous system. If you need time schedule it. It mostly works too. Mostly. Where it gets complicated is when someone sends you a request for an hour meeting. Typically if it fits into the calendar you accept, or at least set your attendance as tentative. The hard part is right then you have to identify if the meeting requires any type of preparation and if it does, you have to schedule that work, or you may well end up a situation where the only way to prepare is to add time that is outside the ordinary day.

It can get worse. I try to review my calendar twice a day,one at the end of the day to see what I have for the next day and what preparation needs to be done. The other is first thing the next morning to see if anything changed. I can easily end up having my day totally driven by others,with no time to do thinking and no time to do the mundane work that I have to do each day like reply to email.

One way to combat that is to do email and coffee work type tasks in meetings where you’re needed, but not quite a direct participant. For example I often attend project meetings where a project manager is walking the team through an implementation plan. I’m responsible for the results of the effort so I like to monitor and watch for pitfalls, but I can also clean up my inbox while I’m there. Has to be done carefully lest I miss something important in the meeting, in practice it’s doable and effective if I’m not a direct participant. If I’m doing active work in the meeting then I don’t have time to do email and that works just fine.

This system of many meetings favors those that can keep the many different tracks in their head well. If you like to sit and think and work on one thing at a time, the transition to this kind of environment can be wrenching.

There are a few tricks that can help you succeed in a frequent meeting environment:

  • Clearly identify any work that needs to be done prior to the meeting and by who
  • Send out a reminder a day or two prior to the meeting if there is work that has to be done by some of the attendees to make the meeting productive, or risk them them showing up empty handed
  • Send out notes (less formal then minutes) after the meeting and call out action items clearly. If I’m copying a VP or higher on the notes I will then forward that same email to them and call out anything that requires their attention – they tend to not read FYI type emails. Notes are a safety net – after a day filled with 6 or more meetings it’s easy to not write down an action item, notes are a courtesy to your attendees (and a way to make sure the work you need gets done!). More than that, if they know you are going to provide notes they don’t have to take notes and try to participate.
  • If you have action items, put them on your calendar as soon as you’ve sent out the notes. Make time to get the work done.

It doesn’t always leave much time in the day for thinking. You may think you have an hour free at 2 pm, but by lunch you may find that someone has booked that time – no thinking today. The only way to survive and prosper in a calendar driven organization is to put time on your calendar for you. Maybe it’s 15 minutes each morning, or an hour every Thursday afternoon, but you have to schedule time for the work that you need to do, not wait for the ‘gap’ in your schedule that you hope will be there.

I don’t have a better suggestion for managing collaboration than the calendar. Realize that in many ways you are a ‘resource’ just like a meeting room and if you’re available, people will need your time. It’s not good or evil, it just is. Manage your calendar or it will manage you!