Trading Time

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How many times have you sat through a meeting that’s overrun? Worse still a meeting that has overrun but which still hasn’t reached any conclusions?

The problem is often blamed on bad chairing. To be sure, too many meetings are badly chaired. But the real problem is that people speak without anything to say.  So meetings roll on without getting anywhere.

Meetings are not the only fixture of modern business life that needed fixing. The dreary PowerPoint presentation has long needed an overhaul. And various people have proposed just that. Like the PechaKucha format where each speaker gets to show 20 slides for 20 seconds each – making for a maximum presentation length of just under seven minutes.

The rapid rotation means people tend not to over complicate their slides. That the slides automatically advance keeps people focused on the rapidly diminishing time and dissuades dithering. And even if it all goes horribly wrong and they turn out not to have thought anything through, at least each presentation is mercifully short. It’s virtually fool proof.

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The problem with meetings is that speaking at length so rarely correlates with saying something new or insightful.  In fact I’ve come to believe that the two are actually inversely correlated.  The longer someone speaks in a meeting the less they actually have to say. They’re using waffle to mask their lack of thought. Meetings don’t incentivise brevity or being concise.

To be sure, there are times when taking through a problem with someone can help.  Freedom to speak without direction or purpose can help to solve problems, uncover new ideas or reach conclusions. But this works best with just two or three people. And generally over a meal or glass of wine when you can defend an idea that you don’t particularly agree with, just to see where the arguments take you.

But this absolutely doesn’t work in larger business meetings, where speaking without a direction or purpose should be – vigorously – discouraged.

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So how about a modern foolproof fix for meetings? A talking stick for the age of apps?

All meetings have just two things in common: they have a fixed number of participants and a fixed number of minutes available. Everything else – from whether decisions are made, to whether you start bashing your head on the table in frustration – is entirely optional.

So here’s my idea for a new meeting format – complete with accompanying app.

The first requirement to ensure a meeting doesn’t overrun, is that you simply divide the number of minutes available by the number of participants.

When you join a meeting – whether you’re on a teleconference or around a table, each participant logs-in on their phone. Your available speaking time appears on the screen of your phone – and on the chair’s.

For example if your meeting is an hour long and you have ten participants, the app allocates everyone six minutes. That’s entirely fair and democratic.

When you speak your time decreases. When your time is up, it’s up. If you start waffling at the beginning of a meeting, you are punished by having to sit in silence for the rest of the meeting. You have an incentive to be concise and only speak when you have something important to say.

You tap your screen when you start taking and your time would start to tick away.  When someone else starts talking or interrupts they tap their phone.  Your time stops descending and theirs starts.   This is not too dissimilar to how meetings with translation operate. Then you have to press a button to activate your microphone before speaking.

The chair – with a special app – could moderate and punish anyone who starts taking without starting their time.

The app would also lock everyone’s phone during the meeting so you’re forced to be mentally present in the meeting – there would be no more passive-aggressive checking of emails.

But meetings aren’t just about talking. They are – or should be – about listening.

I often find myself wanting to hear more of someone who’s making an interesting point, only for them to be interrupted by a big mouth before they’ve made their point.

A good meeting chair should be able to stop this sort of interruption. But often office politics comes into play. Even a good chair might be loathed to, or simply unable to interrupt their boss.  The app could negate this.

Anyone supporting another speaker would be able give away a little of their own speaking time to allow someone else to continue developing an argument or idea. They could wirelessly – and anonymously – trade them a few minutes of their time.

There would be nothing to stop someone being interrupted. But over the course of the meeting they would be guaranteed time to make their point.

People making good concise arguments would be rewarded with more time.  People who are dull or wafflers wouldn’t.

This way the meeting becomes more democratic. Everyone is allocated the same amount of time but they can choose how it’s used and which voices get to be heard. Serial interrupters wouldn’t get to hog a meeting.  People who like the sound of their own voice wouldn’t get to keep everyone late. People who might be shy but know a good idea when they hear it, could make sure those ideas are heard.

This way of trading time would take some getting use to. People would have to learn to make points more concisely. Learn to listen and decide what’s important.

Those who don’t like the format might storm off in a huff. The app would ensure they took their minutes with them when they left.

You might quickly reach a point where meetings routinely finish before are they due. That way by trading time, you’d actually have made time.

And no one would leave a meeting having felt they’ve not had a fair hearing.

Time very well spent.

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