Meetings give me a rash. A really bad one. One that not even calamine lotion can soothe. The only things worse than meetings are reports. Standard daily reports, weekly reports, hourly reports. Reports on the status of reports. If I wasn’t already insane, these things would drive me insane.
Take a look at your Outlook for this week (or if you’re a rebel, look at your Lotus Notes). How much time is spoken for already? How little time is left for you to actually get stuff done? Now take a look at your inbox. How many Excel files are in there with their thousands of rows of data that no one will look at until some SVP gets bored, opens one up and asks a random question about a data point no one has looked at in months? Even more alarming is if you have folders in your Outlook dedicated to storing each of these reports so you can quickly answer said random questions because you have the reports conveniently stored on your laptop. By the way, they’re probably also stored on a shared drive somewhere so you’ve now doubled the amount of data storage space required for this crap repository.
Fear not my friends. There is a cure.
First, let’s look at the symptoms a little more and understand why Outlook meetings and reports spread faster than pink eye at a day care center. There seems to be this pervasive mindset out there that to be important you have to be invited to the meeting. Heaven forbid you get left off the Outlook invite. They might even be talking about YOU! The problem such paranoia creates is people over-invite to prevent others from freaking out from not being on the invite list. So how do we cure symptom 1: decline the meeting. If you don’t need to be there, don’t go. Really. They won’t miss you. And you won’t miss anything. Be brutally honest with accept/decline decisions rather than default “accepting” because it seems the right thing to do. And don’t contribute to the problem. If someone doesn’t have to be at your meeting, don’t invite them. Do them a favor and let them get back to work.
The second symptom of Outlookoriasis are those nasty little recurrence circles. You know the ones – the recycle looking arrow on a meeting that means you’re going to be bored to tears the second Tuesday of EVERY month with no “end after 10 recurrences” in sight. It’s a trap. Once a meeting is set to be recurring, it’s harder to kill than the Terminator. It becomes part of everyone’s routine. The worst ones are staff meetings (click here to hear me opine on that fine forum full of frivolous frolicking).
I once became responsible for a monthly task force that was focused on reducing our loss rates. I was the new guy. I didn’t know any better and accepted the honor of running the meeting. After my first one, it was clear the meeting had outlived its usefulness. It simply needed someone to tell it it was dead. Its recurrence was something out of Monty Python (“I’m not dead yet!” “Oh you soon will be!”). It became my purpose in life to slay that beast. I looked for ways to automate or eliminate the reporting we did. We began managing the meeting by exception (rather than recapping every idea on the list and saying “nothing new since last month” after each one). Over time the meetings got shorter. No one complained. It finally got to a point that I shot out the email notifying everyone I’d be cancelling the meeting going forward unless someone objected. There were no replies. Taps sounded.
Another time I walked into a meeting called by my project manager. I was the sponsor. We were deciding whether to go live with a new web product. The meeting was called to discuss some issues we’d come across in testing. The update I received before the one hour meeting was that the issue we’d found would cause huge issues for our customers if we went live as planned. As the PM started the meeting, I asked “so why are we here?”
“To determine whether we should go live or not based on the issue we found.”
“From what I can tell, it’s a show stopper, no?”
“Yes. For the most part.”
“Then why are we having this meeting?”
“So everyone can talk about why we have this show stopper and we can get consensus on postponing the go live.” Yes. It was surreal.
“How about this. No go live. Decision made. You now have 58 minutes back to go figure out what the problem is so we can go live later.” Meeting ended. Purpose met. Just because Outlook says it’s an hour doesn’t mean it has to be an hour. End the meeting when the purpose has been met. More work gets done that way.
Now that we’ve covered three ways to reduce Outlookoriasis (decline meetings, kill irrelevant ones – especially recurring ones, and end when the purpose has been met rather than when Outlook says you’re supposed to end), let’s look at the chronic case of reportarrhea many organizations suffer from.
Our world is increasingly fact based and data driven. That’s a good thing. Unfortunately someone always has to take things too far. Suddenly they produce an analysis that shows how denim prices in New Jersey are inversely correlated with the sum of the squares of the inverse slope of hairspray sales in Guatemala. Some senior person finds this analysis brilliant and decides to add value. They say something inane like “we should track how that relationship trends on an hourly basis!” And a report is born – or excreted is more like it.
Sure reports have purpose. People will defend them vigorously with cries of “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.” I agree. Unfortunately the appropriate retort is rarely used – “so what exactly are we trying to manage here by using this report?” That one usually generates blank stares.
Want to kill reports? Do so with reckless abandon. Ask everyone which reports are the least used, the hardest to create, or the most meaningless from a management standpoint. Then stop producing them for a week. Betcha $50 nobody notices. If they do, the report might have value. At least go ask the question before you blindly go producing it going forward. Demand that every report have a clear customer, a clear action or set of actions it drives and a defined end point or review of its existence. Sometimes reports die a natural death because you’ve made the progress you needed to and you no longer need to manage the metric. Having a semi-annual review of whether a report lives or dies is a good practice.
Reportarrhea is curable. It takes clear definition of a report’s purpose and a regular review of not only what reporting you’re producing but WHY you’re producing it. Your analysis teams and your operators will be thrilled to reduce the amount of reporting – it’s a burden. Minimize it to a level of bare essentials and your organization will function more smoothly (plus you’ll save a few bucks on data storage).
– Mike Figliuolo at thoughtLEADERS, LLC