January 22, 2007
Lower down in the post is what I call "Gary's Hierarchy of Meeting Participants". As you can see in "Figure A" below there are three basic types of meeting participants.
The first is the "Chief Stakeholder". This is the person responsible for the meeting in the first place. He or she called the meeting, assembled the contributors, booked the conference room, made copies of handouts, created a Powerpoint presentation and basically has no other responsibility than to make your life miserable. They have a specific motivation for setting the meeting. This is called an "Agenda". And it has very little to do with the primary reason that most everyone else is in attendance, which is that they have to be. The Chief Stakeholder is easily identifiable as the one with the laptop.
The second level of participants contains the "Contributors". These are the individuals called by the Chief Stakeholder to talk about a particular topic that is on the Agenda. They generally only speak to their topic and rarely participate in any other part of the meeting. The Contributors are also fairly easily indentifiable as the ones with folders or stacks of paper containing their material.
The third level is comprised of "Attendees". These are the folks who for one reason or another are determined by the Chief Stakeholder as individuals being affected by the Agenda who need to be made familiar with all of said subject matter. In reality, most of the Attendees have only a marginal interest in the Agenda and will quickly forget everything with which they have been made familiar at the meeting. Attendees can be identified as the ones who have bewildered looks on their faces and are usually holding pens and writing pads of various sizes. These pads are intended to convey a level of interest in the Agenda that does not really exist. The Chief Stakeholder usually understands this.
Now, as to why meetings suck.
While all meetings suck at some level for all of the participants, there is a certain phenomena that happens during meetings in which the total amount of suckitude has an inverse relationship to the level of total interest each category of participant has in the meeting itself as you go down the hierarchy.
Let me explain.
The Chief Stakeholder has an extemely high level of interest in the meeting. As a result, time passes at a faster rate than normal for him or her as they try to cram in too much of the Agenda into the meeting before the allotted time expires. They also have the most to gain from the meeting because it will - at best - result as a line item to hightlight on their internal resume or - at worst - will serve as a CYA exercise in which they can transfer the responsibility for the overall familiarity of the Agenda items to the Attendees (e.g. "I already went through all of that at the meeting").
The Contributors have a high level of interest but only for their own particular item on the Agenda. Very often each of these individuals can excuse themselves from the rest of the meeting however many will stay and completely tune out the rest of the Agenda, confident that once they are done with their portion they can recede into the background. For the amount of time that these individuals "contribute" time will pass rather quickly. The rest of the meeting will drag, however they know that if they have to they can escape the situation with a bathroom break from which they will never return. Contributers stand to gain some rise in esteem among their peers as going forward they may be seen as somewhat of an "expert" regarding the subject matter on which they spoke.
Which brings us to the Attendees. For these people, the laws of time and space will alter in a way that seems to defy the minute hands on their watches. They can often be noticed struggling to keep their eyes open, constantly shifting in their seats and getting up to help themselves to water, coffee or other refreshments in a vain attempt to keep their legs from falling asleep. The less interest the individual Attendee has in the Agenda, the slower that time will pass. Attendees stand to gain very little from the meeting other than having their mornings, afternoons or even an entire day shot all to hell. They have the additional disadvantage of looking stupid later on when some item from the Agenda is brought up and they have no memory of that information because they weren't able to focus their attention during the meeting.
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