Listening to podcasts has become one of my guilty pleasures, with Back to Work topping the list on both counts. I’m not quite sure why I say guilty, maybe because some that I listen to come dangerously close to being part therapy session and part college seminar (not counting the parts about comics and superheroes). I’m not even sure which part of that combination makes me feel guilty, it just does. But regardless, Back to Work has an uncanny way of wandering around in a fog of silly and bumping into incredible insights about work and life. Even in the shows where Merlin is clearly reading from his cards, the fog and the insights are still there.
In the episode Invitation to a Blame Party, there is a great section, beginning at around 1:03:00 on how to run a meeting. Actually, it’s more like how to create a culture in which meetings are productive. No, scratch that, it’s more about how to help create a productive culture, period. Meetings are not the goal, doing the thing you do is the goal. Bad meetings can completely sabotage productivity and waste time, and the time loss is multiplied by all the people in the room.
Even though I’m not a corporate stooge, meeting culture in academia is no better, and it might be worse. It’s one thing to sit through a meeting you shouldn’t have to attend, but it’s a whole different experience to be in a meeting where everyone has a Ph.D. in an area far, far removed from the topic at hand. Earning a Ph.D. means you are smart, tenacious, creative, and probably somewhat self-loathing (I kid, you don’t really have to be that smart). Being a professor means there are some people who are required to listen to your ideas, usually for an hour, three times a week. They even pay for the opportunity to hear your ideas. The combination of having a Ph.D. and having access to people who pay to hear your ideas can do some strange things to a person, and meetings are the most likely place for the strangeness to come out. Kind of like combining distant relatives with an open bar at a wedding — nothing good can come of it, with the possible exception of some YouTube ad revenue. So the more control and focus that can be maintained in a meeting, the better for everyone.
All of the suggestions in this episode for improving meetings are great, but the best advice, in my opinion, is the idea of scheduling guests. Don’t ask every person to attend the whole meeting, call in experts when needed and only in response to a specific question. I like this so much because if you’re going to schedule guests, then you have to know in advance what your aims and agenda are. If you have people scheduled, you have to watch the clock and move through your agenda items. It serves as a keystone for the rest of the points about running good meetings. And speaking of which, I have a meeting with a tall stack of final exams, where I find out whether the people who spent all the money to listen to me actually heard anything!