"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Conferences, Seminars, and Meetings–What a Bloody Waste of Time

The meetings at Children Are The Future lasted forever.  Even the dimmest light bulb in the room had to be consulted and her opinions aired, discussed, and respected.  The process was as ‘participatory’ as that applied to the work of international development, the bread-and-butter of the organization.  On the cover of the company brochure was a handsome picture of the CEO and “Listen to the people” emblazoned below.  The company had even designed a logo with the slogan encircling an image of a village well, and this escutcheon along with the beaming company leader was affixed to every branch office and was as ubiquitous and prominent as the photographs of Qaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong-un, or the Shah of Iran.

There was some point in listening to the people in Bangladesh or Chad because most development projects were designed with the sympathies of liberal Congressmen in mind; or the unremitting private sector demands from Western conservatives; or the laments of interest groups bleating for breast milk, women’s rights, and latrines – and not the beneficiaries in the field.  These ‘top-down’ projects could have used a little dose of reality and some consumer input.  The fact that the bureaucrats at USAID had no interest at all in listening and were hell-bent on pursuing Washington’s political agendas made no difference to Children Are The Future, and every program included a painstaking process of community involvement. 

Old crones gathered around the village well. Old men sitting on charpoys chewing pan and spitting red betel juice at spiders. Young women with babies strapped on their backs, fidgeting at the long sermons of Barb from Dubuque and nodding at her pleading requests for ‘input’.  It all ended up the same.  Projects produced nothing, changed nothing, and never even made a dent in the cultural armor of ‘the people’.  Group after group of locals stared dumbly at Children’s evangelists who made up convenient answers for Washington.

The meetings at Children’s offices on K Street were no different. There was a slavish, stubborn, and persistent attempt to get everyone to participate and contribute.  “Now, that’s an interesting point”, the Regional Manager would say, nodding and smiling at Roberta from Personnel who banged on about receivables and arrears and never changed her tune from week to week. “Does anyone want to comment on this great idea?”.

Staff meetings were endless.  Agendas were loose or open-ended.  Discussions were allowed to drift from strong currents to swirling eddies, to lapping tidewaters, and to still marshes with no guidance or direction whatsoever. Participation was all that mattered.  Colleagues had to feel good about themselves.  Process was as important as product.

It was all nonsense.  It was a waste of time and effort, and eroded the morale of the few rational, disciplined members of the team.  I might have tolerated this participatory tomfoolery if it had been restricted to weekly staff meetings, but the participatory mania had so infected every department, division, and unit that planned and impromptu meetings were called all the time.  Opinions were canvassed again and again, egos stroked, feathers smoothed, and self-esteem nurtured.  No work ever got done.

I, like any worker above the factory floor, have suffered through endless meetings, seminars, workshops, and conferences.  I have never seen any benefit.  I had to attend ‘Sensitivity Training’ where all men were whipped, pilloried, tarred, and feathered  for being sexual predators and rapists. 

I spent hours in Inclusivity Workshops where facilitators hammered on about cultural diversity and equal worth; days in Team Building exercises designed to improve communication and collaboration.  I endured the torture of Myers-Briggs testing, a pop psychology parlor game designed to encourage respect for difference.  I once was an elephant in a game to encourage employees to lose their personal identities in order to become less opinionated and judgmental.

I have sat through seminars on productivity, workplace efficiency, and information flow dynamics.  I have attended conferences on parasites, toilets, rectal bleeding, and dwarfism.  I shuttled between sessions on “Isotope Differentials in Nutrient-Scarce Diets”; “The Enraged Woman – Suffering in Silence in Myanmar”; and “Buttonhole to Belly Button – Laparoscopy and the Sari”.

Perhaps the most wasteful meetings of all were Brainstorming Sessions.  Employees were asked to show up and share ideas about a particular topic.  No preparation was required because spontaneity and free-flow were prized. Everyone was invited regardless of their interest in or experience with the topic because they were thought to provide a valuable objective perspective. These sessions served only to display the ignorance and illiteracy of co-workers who were incapable of wrestling with a new idea and formulating some kind of intelligent response. Management would have been far better served if we all had been asked ahead of time to think, reflect, and prepare.  The Senior Vice President could have scanned and tossed the dumb entries and focused on the more productive.  But no; the participatory process was as important as the results.

Meetings were so common at USAID that no one of any responsibility ever answered the phone.  “Ms. Jones is in a meeting”, the administrative assistant from the Africa Bureau would respond. “May I take a message?” The larger the bureaucracy, the more egos to stroke, and the more meetings required. No one wanted Dolores from Accounting to be miffed and add an extra zero to your shortfall out of spite. Representatives high and low; up, down, and across the agency were invited to all meetings.

I used to calculate the cost of these exercises in self-promotion, misguided mission, or inept senior management; and it was outrageous. The cost of international conferences on everything from human rights to bovine fever was astronomical and could have funded an entire country’s vaccination program for years.

Why are meetings so popular in this electronic age?  If anything, one would expect the number of meetings to have declined since communication has become easier, more fluid, and more immediate.  The quality of individual input within a collective exercise – i.e. preparing a one page bulleted paper on a topic for presentation and discussion - is far higher than collective input (sitting around a table and jabbering). I can identify exactly those colleagues with whom I have to collaborate to complete my task, and efficiently do business with them online or in short one-on-one exchanges.

The answer is simple.  A job sitting in a cube for eight hours, doing boring work for low pay, with few social or psychological rewards, would be intolerable.  When we go to meetings we get acknowledged, we eat cookies together, we laugh at jokes and innuendos, we piss and sniff like dogs getting to know each other, we bond, and we exchange glances.  Other than making a living, that is why we work – to get out of the house, to have regular, predictable social intercourse, to show off new leggings, and to play games.

I gamed the system to avoid long hours at the office, using tunnel vision productivity to get permission to ‘work at home’.  There I could produce work quickly and efficiently in the early hours of the morning, spend the later hours relaxing and reading.  I would be patched in to meetings, mute my clacking keyboard, and do three things while listening to the drone from K Street.  I spent plenty of time in the office, but organized it so that it was short, limited, and productive.

I was the oddball in an office which valued social interaction at least as much as productivity.  I was an outlier who ducked in every so often, but didn’t really belong.

It takes a talented and intelligent manager to provide space for this social greasing and for productivity – to organize meetings only when absolutely necessary; to rely on individual input but to give public acknowledgement of effort; to value product over process. 

This rarely happens, of course, for managers get sucked into the office ethos and routine and find themselves, despite themselves, presiding over blather. Executives at UNESCO, UNFPA, or WHO cannot possibly eliminate an international conference which will get them favorable press, win allegiance from far-flung professionals, generate academic citations and references, and serve as a job fair for the ambitious and committed.  The fact that such conferences cost millions of dollars is irrelevant.  Everyone loves the presentations, the poster sessions, the informal coffee klatches, and the late-night boozing. 

At certain higher levels of management, schmoozing is important and necessary. It is often at the after-hours bar that deals are struck, and a firm handshake still counts for something; but for the thousands of laborers and minions who are there to see and be seen and gain credibility for so doing, little will come of their enterprise. They learn nothing, share nothing, do nothing.  It is a paid vacation.

Despite the rallying call of Ronald Reagan (“Government is not the solution.  Government is the problem”) and the persistent attempts of both Republican and Democratic administrations to limit the scope and influence of government, Washington bureaucracy has continued to grow.  Bureaucracies are living organisms that grow like amoebas, squeezing and squishing, absorbing and growing.  Cut off one piece, and the creature reassembles and grows in another direction. There is monumental waste within public bureaucracies and the culture of social lubrication is much to blame.  When the culture of CYA (Cover Your Ass) is added, and inclusion becomes necessary for survival, the combination is deadly.

Meetings - like war, sex, and gourmandize – are here to stay.  They are expressions of human nature.  More and more they are the products of the public sector which is rarely held to any accountability, and employees can afford to diddle and dawdle without consequence.  The non-profit sector comes in a close second; and it is only in the bottom-line private sector where individual enterprise is valued and prized, and where sniffing, pissing, and ass-covering simply get in the way.  Think Bill Gates or Steve Jobs in their Seattle garages, or small, lean, and hungry small businesses in Biloxi.  Especially on Wall Street time is far, far too valuable to be wasted in meetings.

I will always be happiest following my own clock, getting up at 2am, 3, or 4; working whenever and however; joining the international electronic flow at all hours of the day, choosing partners and correspondents from among hundreds of ‘friends’ and contacts; cruising, surfing, and perusing the web; and jumping in and out of chat groups. I have a good feeling that my quasi-independent electronic life will be the business mode of the future; but I have a bad feeling that virtual meetings will replace real ones, but the suffering will be the same.  On the other hand, maybe employees will not be willing to forgo the shared donuts, cookies, handshakes, and scents of cologne and perfume of real meetings and life will go on as it has forever.

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