Do meeting cancellations make you grumpy? A not so scientific study.

I work in a role where it’s possible that a meeting can happen anywhere in the 24 hour of a day. In general people work together to respect people’s working day, but there are times when a meeting at an anti-social time is unavoidable, that’s accepted. What makes me grumpy, though, is when these meetings are cancelled or postponed, particularly at short notice.

Yesterday evening I finished my normal working day with the expectation of joining a teleconference at 8:00pm. When I had started my break at 6:00pm I had already attended a preparation meeting with the full expectation that the later meeting would go ahead. Still expecting that the meeting would go ahead I retreated into my small study at 7:55pm ready to connect, but in the 1 hour 55 minutes I had been offline the meeting had been reschedule to a later date. I was a bit grumpy, I wasn’t a lot grumpy, because I had some expectation that this would happen. Why was I grumpy?

This experience got me thinking; if the notice of this postponement had come to 6:00pm I would have been delighted. The timing of the cancellation/reschedule made all the difference to my response.

I wondered whether I could create a model, or an equation, to understand this phenomenon, something that would help us to empathise with others in different time zones attending a meeting.

First step, create a chart of grumpiness/delight for a typical meeting cancellation based on time of the meeting and notice period given:


How grumpy/delighted am I if a meeting is cancelled, based on how much notice I was given?

The first observation is that most of the points on this chart are actually ranges that depend upon the type of meeting and the importance of the meeting that is being cancelled or postponed. If a meeting is at an anti-social time, but I don’t think it’s important, I’m not likely to attend anyway. If the meeting at an anti-social time is critically important to progress another activity and is postponed I’m likely to still be a bit grumpy even if I get good notice of the move. Imagine that this charge represents a moderately important meeting that doesn’t represent anything that is time critical.

There are some interesting aspects to this chart:

Good notice can bring delight

If you give me good notice of a cancellation for a meeting at an anti-social time I will be delighted that it’s been cancelled. The reverse is also true, give me poor notice and I’ll be especially glum. If I know before the end of my normal working day that I don’t need to interrupt my evening with a work commitment I’ll be very happy, thank you. If I interrupt my evening, or even my sleep, to attend something that I then find out that I didn’t need to attend will make me sad.

The later it gets the more notice you need to give

There are degrees of anti-socialness, evenings are different to very early mornings but for each of them you need to consider how much notice you might need to give. The danger here is that the more anti-social it is the more notice you need to give; giving 2 hours of notice for a 2:00am meeting isn’t helping anyone.

12-hours notice may not even be enough

Even with a 12 hour notice there is still a window for grumpiness. Assuming that I finish my working day at 6:00pm and don’t check in the evening, the postponement of a meeting scheduled for 7:00am the next day will still make me a but grumpy. I’m normally awake about that time, but attending a meeting at this time will be outside my normal routine, which I’m happy to do as long as there is some value in doing it. Interrupting the normal routine and having nothing to show for it it frustrating.

Zero notice is nearly always going to make me grumpy.

While it’s not always possible to give people notice of a cancellation giving zero notice is always likely to lead to a level of umbrage. If you have some notice you have a chance of re-planning your day, zero notice takes away that possibility.

Lunch is a special condition

Cancellations for meetings that happen around lunchtime are a special condition in the model. Meetings at mealtimes are themselves anti-social, there’s a less marked impact, for me anyway, for breakfast and dinner, but messing about with lunchtime makes me grumpy. Treat that meeting at 12:00pm to 12:30pm with special care.

The end of the normal day boost.

The end of the normal working day is another special case. This is the one time I’m likely to a little peak of delight that a meeting is cancelled with zero notice. Strangely I feel more delighted about a meeting cancelled at the end of the working day than one postponed in the evening.

Having looked at the chart I concluded that there probably wasn’t a formula for this. I also concluded that there were several other factors that influence my response to a meeting postponement or cancellation:

  • Day of the week – a Monday looks different to a Friday.
  • Time sensitivity – how do I feel if the results of a meeting are needed for a time critical activity.
  • Social impact – what I am doing outside of the normal working day makes a huge difference, especially if I have chosen to forego a personal commitment in favour of a work commitment that then doesn’t happen.
  • Reasons for meeting timing – there are very good reasons for some meetings happening at anti-social times, the reasons are not as clear for other meetings.
  • Expectation of postponement – there are some meetings that give me, for various reasons, I have a high expectation of change. My response to these meetings differs.
  • Overall meeting-load – there are regularly situations where I need to choose one meeting over another. Getting short notice of cancellation of the chosen meeting can lead to high levels of frustration.
  • Family and cultural routines – some people’s chart for the anti-social hours would be very different to mine and that signifies their family and cultural routines. I tend to regard early evenings as easier than late evenings, people with younger children probably see this the other way around.

In short, there isn’t a simple formula to work out what my, or someone else’s, response to a reschedule will be, but giving people as much notice as possible is an excellent working practice. Avoiding zero-notice cancellations should be very high on meeting organisers objectives, especially at anti-social times.

What comes after 2020?

Over recent years organisations have been defining their medium-term and long-term planning with a target for delivery of the year 2020.

Some examples:

Some of these go back 10 years, others are more recent. The master of the 2020 target has to be Elon Musk who has made numerous promises along the lines of “by 2020” over the years.

Why 2020?

Decade years – 20, 30, 40, 50 – sound significant to us. They remind us that we are passing a milestone from the 20-10s to the 20-20s. There’s little point, in most contexts, to plan out 50 or even 25 years, but 10 years hence sounds like a period of time we can imagine and “long-term”.

Also 2020 has a particular resonance because of the link with eyesight testing and 20/20 being the definition of perfect eyesight. It’s interesting to see how many of the descriptions of 2020 strategies have included a play on this – “2020 vision”, “2020 in focus”, etc.

(It’s worth noting here that 20/20 doesn’t actually represent perfect eyesight, and is an American standard, in Europe optometrists use the 6/6 standard, but even in the UK that doesn’t have the same resonance in the public mindset 😊.)

For those of you only just getting used to it being 2019 already it’s probably not helpful of me to point out that 2020 is only 11.5 months away which doesn’t leave you much time to get your 2020 strategy implemented.

What are you planning for?

This is where I’m intrigued, now that 2020 is so close, where are you going to pitch your long and medium-term strategy now? Are you going to go large and aim for 2030, which seems like it’s a long, long way away. The year 2025 is a disappointing compromise even if it is the year has Elon Musk picked for humans on Mars (though they would have to leave in 2024 to get there in time). There doesn’t appear to be any benchmark year in this race. The year 2020 has been such a magnet for this kind of target that anything else beyond it feels like a pale imitation. What are you planning?

Header image: Today’s header image is of Formby Beach on an amazingly sunny and calm Christmas Eve 2018.

Stop the Self-Inflicted Pain | Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we let others do it to us?

Do two posts make a series? Anyway, this is second post looking at some modern-day frustrations where we look inside things that we do that are daft and dangerous. Some of them you may not realise are doing you damage, others probably already drive you a bit loopy. Part 1 is here: Stop the Self Inflicted Pain | How Much Better Could Your Life Be?

We have three more topics for today:

Devices in Meetings

What is the purpose of a meeting? Do you know? In almost every case, the addition of screens into that meeting is harming that purpose.

Most meetings that I attend, if I attend in person, are based around a large table. The table is littered with laptops, phones and tablets. People join the meeting with every intention of contributing wholeheartedly to it, but within minutes they are distracted. They don’t mean to be, but they are powerless to stay away from the distracting movements that are occurring before them.

“But” I can hear you say…

“But, what if I want to take notes electronically?” If you are far more disciplined than me, then perhaps you can have a powerful, internet connected, multi-skilled device there in-front of you and only use it to take notes. If that is you, then I take my hat off to you, but it’s still not as good for you as writing notes.

“But, what if I need the material off my laptop to inform the meeting?” That may be a perfectly valid point, but it should be limited and clearly understood in the objectives for the meeting, often it’s an excuse.

“But, what happens if someone needs to contact me?” This is the ultimate expression of the problem. If you take a device into a meeting because you think that someone may need to contact you, then you will be spending a significant amount of time in that meeting distracted by the potential that someone is going to contact you. “Has my phone run yet?” “What’s was that email that has just come in?”

Multi-tasking

One of the main reasons that devices in meetings is such a bad idea is that it draws us into multitasking and we are very poor at multitasking.

There are numerous experiments that show our inability to task switch, but perhaps we need the kids to show us how it is (not) done:

There’s also growing evidence that the impact of persistent multitasking is lasting harm. You’re less effective while you are multitasking, but you are also permanently numbing down your brain.

Aside from the impact on our brains there are situations where multitasking is downright dangerous. Those of you who still think you can text and drive are kidding yourself:

It has become normal many of us to multi-screen in front of the TV every night. Even if we are only using our tablet or phone while the adverts are on, we are still expecting our brains to multitask. Those advert may be annoying, but rather than picking up a screen we would be much better standing up and having a stretch.

This isn’t a new subject for me, but we still have a very long way to go before people listen.

Open Plan Offices

Once the darling of every office manager the open plan office is a disaster for productivity.

You don’t need to look any further for evidence of this than this invention from Panasonic:

wearspace_rolling

These are a pair of blinkers for the office, for those times when you need some peace and quiet to get your job done! Seriously!

Again, I hear that “but” word entering into your head. The primary “but” for open plan offices is: “But, doesn’t it improve communication between teams and enable more creative interactions?” Let me put it as simply as I can: “No.”

Open plan offices drive down interactions:

The results were stark: after the shift to an open-plan office space, the participants spent 73 per cent less time in face-to-face interactions, while their use of email and instant messenger shot up by 67 per cent and 75 per cent respectively.

Most people spend their time in an open plan office with headphones plugged in which makes it difficult to know whether they are one a phone call so it’s normal to instant message them, even if they are on the next desk.

How many more things?

That’s eight different areas that we’ve covered in two posts, I wonder how many more there are? Imagine if each one improves your productivity, or wellness, by just 2% we would have improved our lives by at least 16%!

Stop the Self Inflicted Pain | How Much Better Could Your Life Be?

I have a physio friend and people regularly go up to him and say: “It hurts when I do this!”

His response is to say: “Well, don’t do that then.”

Pain is often our body’s way of telling us to do things differently, yet we all do things every day that cause us pain, or am I the only one? Many of the practices we regard as sacrosanct in modern business have no basis in science, yet a global peer pressure enforces them into the life of millions. Some of these practices are just a bit unhelpful, but some are dangerous to health and well-being. Many of the things that we do outside of work are likewise unhelpful and dangerous and yet we continue to do them, and I’m not talking about rock climbing. When questioned we would struggle to articulate why we do them, we just do.

Although I quoted my physio friend, I’m not primarily talking about physical health things, though that can can often play a significant part. My principal focus are those practices that impact upon our productivity and ultimately our well-being.

Perhaps you are living in splendid ignorance, so I’m sorry if this post opens your eyes to things that will now frustrate you when you see them, as all good 12 Step programmes know the first step is to move out of denial.

The first thing to note is that I’ve constrained the length of this post to keep it readable, but the list of self inflicted pain is very long indeed, and I may return to it at some point in the future, it may even become a series, I’ll see.

Are your wasting your productive time?

Many people plan their day around a focus on important work and urgent work with little attention to the timing of the work during the day.

If your diary is anything like mine it is littered with meetings. There is no pattern to the types of meetings and when they happen, they are scheduled at the time when the person arranging it decided it should happen.

We each have different times in the day when we are better, or worse, at different types of work – we have a chronotype. For most, our chronotype is somewhere between extreme morningness or extreme eveniningness, as such for most of us we are more alert in the morning, have a slump in the afternoon and then have another peak in the evening. Yet, how many of us waste our alert productive time in the morning on the trivial tasks that would be better suited to our afternoon slump? We are making our lives significantly harder by expecting our performance to be the same across the day and our schedule of meetings isn’t helping.

This is a particularly difficult challenge for international teams where people are in different time-zones with some in the middle of their most productive time and others in the middle of a slump.

Are you getting outside?

If you are going to recover from a slump one of the best ways of doing it is to get outside into the nature that’s probably around you. Even if you work in a city there is likely to be parkland or some other form of green space available.

Remaining inside and expecting your body to recover from a slump is likely to just extend the slump.

You don’t have to be outside for long, a few minutes is enough to make a huge difference to your focus and ability to get work done.

Are you wearing the right footwear?

Do you work in an environment where you are expected to wear shoes? Perhaps you are expected to wear “smart” (uncomfortable) shoes?

Research in schools has shown that shoeless learning spaces perform better. Is it too much of a stretch to think that work environments, particularly for knowledge workers may also perform better if people ditch their shoes?

I’ve often pondered whether it’s one of the reasons why people prefer home working. Work always feels different at home in my slippers.

How much of a culture change would your organisation need to allow slippers to become the normal footwear in the office? Would the productivity increase be worth it?

Are you wasting time with long meetings?

Back to you diary. How many 1 hour meetings will you be attending today or this week? How many 2 hour meetings? Of the 1 hour and 2 hour meetings how many of them include break times? Not many? None? That’s my experience also.

What is the ideal length of a meeting for maximum concentration? Well, there doesn’t appear to be an absolute definitive answer on that, some say 15 minutes, some say 45 minutes, there’s some evidence for a sweet-spot of 18 minutes, whichever option you choose they are all less than an hour and way less than 2 hours. There are different ways to engineer longer meetings with mini-breaks, perhaps getting everyone to change position, or change subject, another way is to do something interactive but these mini-breaks are only partially successful.

There’s a good reason why the daily stand-up meeting in Scrum is only 15 minutes. Extending the meeting beyond that time can, quite quickly, suck all of the energy out of the meeting.

If you routinely schedule meetings for an hour then you are almost certainly wasting people’s time. Remember the project management adage:

Work expands to the time you schedule for it.

One other thing to be aware of. People are more productive at the beginning and end of a meeting, but only if they know it’s the end. This is where sticking to a timer is really important. People’s productivity will lift as they see the finish line coming into view.

Two 30 minute meetings will be more productive than a single one hour long meeting.

Are you frustrating everyone with a blended remote and face-to-face meeting?

The worst type of meeting is the blended remote and face-to-face meeting. The people who are face-to-face are frustrated by the slowness caused by the people who are remote. This frustration is particularly acute for people who have travelled and are sitting there thinking that they wished they had decided to join remotely. The people who are remote are frustrated by their inability to understand everything that is going on in the meeting room and often get distracted.

  1. All face-to-face meetings = best
  2. All remote meetings = OK
  3. Blended remote and face-to-face = worst

I speak as someone with significant experience of each.

Oh dear, I’ve run out of room…

I think that will do for now, if each of us manged to make these few changes we would all be in a better place, but I suspect that for many of us even these are beyond our grasp, we clearly prefer the pain. There’s definitely more examples to come, so I suspect that there will be another round.

Concept of the Day: The Law of the Instrument – “To the man with a hammer…”

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

Abraham Maslow

More commonly expressed as:

“To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

(I’ve not attributed the common version to anyone because that appears to be up for debate)

The Law of the Instrument is another of those cognitive biases, which appear to be fruitful ideas for these Concept of the Day posts. I think that the reason I find biases so fascinating is that they reveal things about the way we think and provide explanations for why we behave in certain ways and certain situations. The Law of Instrument highlights our tendency to place an over-reliance upon a familiar tool. I suspect that each of us has at least one example of situations we’ve encountered where this has been the case.

I used to have a colleague who would write documents in Microsoft Excel spreadsheets – which his Personal Assistant would then retype into a Microsoft Word document. He knew how to use a spreadsheet, so that’s what he used.

In a similar vein, many organisations send out corporate communications as Microsoft Word documents because that is what the corporate communications team are comfortable creating them in. This annoys everyone, especially the people on mobile devices.

We’ve covered Excel and Word, so I didn’t want to leave PowerPoint out :-). Not sure I need to give an example here though. we have the phrase “Death by PowerPoint” for a reason.

Most of the features of most applications are rarely used, because people don’t go looking for more effective ways of doing things. Once you’ve worked out how to create a table it’s likely that you’ll always create a table that way. I’ve seen several methods employed by applications to nudge us away from our ingrained behaviours, but we keep coming back to the hammer that we already have available to us.

Organisations are dependent upon the data analysis that people do in Microsoft Excel because that’s the tool they are familiar with, when far better tools exist.

The language used by many coding projects is defined by what the chosen developer knows. There’s rarely much discussion about finding the right language, and hence the right developer, for the project.

There’s a current trend to move people to Agile project management methods. In many cases organisations are moving from having one methodology for project management, which was only appropriate to some types of project, to another project management methodology which is only appropriate for a different set of projects. The thought of running two different project management methodologies is regarded as heresy. Agile has become the one-size-fits-all answer to project management.

The Abraham Maslow in the original quote is the same one who produced the Hierarchy of Needs. What better example of The Law of the Instrument could you wish for? The Hierarchy of Needs has, for many, become the universal tool for explaining people’s behaviour. Whilst The Hierarchy of Needs is a useful tool, it’s very unlikely that there is a universal tool for explaining all of human behaviour.

Like all biases, the first step in overcoming it is to recognise that it exists. What we all need in our lives is someone who is regulalrly asking us “why did you do it like that?” Our answer to that question will be a good guide to thye impact of The Law of Instrument in our lives. Another good question to ask is “is there a different way of doing this?” It’s unlikely there isn’t an alternative but if you can’t think of one then you need to challenge your bias.

Cognitive Bias Posts:

Taming My To-Do List Dread (and being productive at the same time)

To-Do lists make me shudder inside – after years of trying and numerous failed attempts I can barely stand to look at a to-do list, and yet, keeping everything in my head is exhausting (see linked post for more information).

So how do I stay productive and tame my to-do list dread?

I’ve discovered that my main issue with a to-do list is that they are useless for creating the framework of priority and importance, they don’t help me to see what is significant and what isn’t. A list of 50 items can be sorted and re-sorted by many different versions of priority and importance.

I have spent many hours sorting lists, when I am at my most determined, the items at the top of the list are those things that are clearly important and urgent, but I can make anything important and urgent and when I let my self control slip I will. There have been many times when the prioritisation of the list didn’t give me the answer I was hoping for so I just re-prioritise everything using a different criteria until it did. My integrity wouldn’t allow me to just pick the things I wanted to do, I needed to have some reason for doing those things, but they were often the flimsiest of reasons.

Remarkably, the things that I progress using this technique often turn out to be the things that were significant all along. There have been many time when the things that appear to be urgent and important just fall by the wayside and weren’t needed after all.

I’m not trying to claim some sixth-sense here, just the fallibility of a prioritised to-do list.

To-Do Lists v Productivity Planners

I don’t work from a to-do list anymore, I work from a productivity planner.

“A what?” I hear some of you say.

“A Productivity Planner.”

“What’s the difference?” you respond (don’t you?)

“I’m glad you asked – the primary difference is that framework of significance I’ve been talking about.”

This is the analogy I have in my head. Imagine that the things on your to-do list are each represented by a book that you need to read, and you have 1,000 books on the list. Sorting the books alphabetically is like sorting them by priority, you still have 1,000 books, they’ve just been sorted. You have to get a long way through the 1,000 books before you start to feel like you are making any progress at all. The problem with your progress is that it is one dimensional, all you are tracking is how far through the thousands of books have you got, it’s not showing you how much progress you have made in learning, or how close you are to be able to use that information productively, you’re just counting books. What makes this worse is that every time you turn around there will be another pile of books that will need sorting into the alphabetic ordering system. There is no chance that you will ever get from A-to-Z, it’s never going to happen, and why do you even need to go from A-to-Z? Why do you need to read every page in every book? What purpose is reading the books fulfilling?

To put it another way:

  • Why do you need to do all of the activities on your list?
  • Why do you need to complete every aspect of these activities?
  • What purpose is completing these activities fulfilling?

Productivity planners tend to take the questions above, but in reverse order:

  1. What’s my purpose? One of.
  2. What do I need my focus to be to fulfill my purpose? One of.
  3. What are my priorities for that focus? A few of, 5.
  4. What other tasks do I need to get done? Several of, but less than 8.

I find that this approach gives me a much more realistic plan of priorities and activities, many of which will get completed and others progressed.

My current productivity planner is the Panda one, but I have used others that follow a similar scheme. The people at Panda provide a PDF of their layouts so that you can try them out for size (I don’t seem to be able to buy an actual Panda planner in the UK, so printing out sheets is my only option). The Panda planner asks a few additional questions aimed at connecting you with the “why?”

  • I’m grateful for?
  • I’m excited about?
  • Exercise?

It also encourages an end of day review challenging me to think about today’s wins and one area to improve.

Of the 11 areas on the Panda Planner 7 of them are focussed on connecting with a framework of significance.

Switching from a pure to-do list to a productivity plan has tamed my dread of those horrendously long lists whilst helping me to maintain my productivity. There are still lots of things that don’t get done, but, hopefully, with the help of the plan, I’m spending my time doing the significant things.

PS: Another aspect of the various Productivity Planners that I’ve used is that they are on paper. I’ve used many apps, I’ve ever written blogs about them, but I keep coming back to paper, I suspect that there is a reason for that.

Co-location – the Super Food of Collaboration

In the western world we have a huge choice of foods that we can eat. We know which ones are good for us, and which ones aren’t, yet many of us are overweight, getting fatter and suffering from the health consequences of poor dietary choices.

The obesity problem is worse in areas of low income – why? One of the  main reasons is that good, healthy food is expensive and for the most part cheap food is unhealthy. This cheap food is normally processed, has travelled a long way from areas of low cost production and is purchased on a whim without the burden of preparation. It makes us feel good because it’s full of sugars and fats that our addicted brains crave but it doesn’t provide a healthy nutritional diet.

Teleconferences are the fast-food of collaboration. We set them up without consideration because they are cheap and immediately accessible. They allow us to use resources from wherever they are in the planet without consideration for those resources and, sometimes, with little consideration for the quality of those resources. They help us to believe that we are collaborating, which we are, but only in the same way as a fast-food burger is food.

Co-located collaboration is different, like organic wholefood it’s more expensive but it’s significantly better for us. The extra expense makes us respect it more so we make sure that we get all of the value out of it that we can. Organic wholefood requires extra preparation to get the right ingredients together but the results are amazing and the same is true for co-located collaboration. Co-located collaboration feeds all of our collaboration dietary needs in a way that the fast-food teleconferences never can, we never really get to know people on teleconferences, they’re just voices. There is marked difference in the level of collaboration that we achieve with people that we have physically met compared to those we haven’t. The most healthy collaboration is achieved when we are co-located with people we know well, this is the super-food of collaboration.

The occasional fast-food teleconference collaboration isn’t going to kills us, but it’s not healthy to live on it.