Calendar-Run Company

Of all the innovations, rather intrusions, of technology in day-to-day life, nothing comes close to the digital calendar in occupying the top spot. I am sure everyone (excluding those who live in a cave) is familiar with the uncomfortable buzz that your electronic devices emit to let you know that it is time for your next meeting or activity.

Those of you who are old enough to remember will long for the good old days of manual diaries and paper calendars, some hung on the wall and some others stuck to your fridge, where you had to make an entry with a pen or pencil indicating when your rent is due or when someone’s birthday is.

The corporate organizations of today seem to be run by a bewildering array of digital calendars. The calendar is no longer a productivity tool, as many management pundits would have to believe. You are effectively a slave to the master, the Calendar! In the spirit of an open office, other peoples’ calendars are game for you to insert entries at will – all you need is a blank space in time that is common across the designated audience. It helps if you are the boss as your subordinates cannot refuse your calendar ‘invite’ and you even have the authority to overwrite their ‘personal time off’.

There are many quirks in the world of calendars that provide humor and entertainment in their own right. For example, any calendar invite worth its salt will have a long list of dial-in information, for global participants, along with a series of code numbers to validate your identity. Getting past all these numbers and entering a virtual meeting on time could be a nerve wracking experience.

Then there are the innumerable updates that follow an original calendar invite.  There may be a dozen corrections to the original date, time, location (meeting room numbers are my favorite), invitees and even the very subject of the meeting – all of which will result in updated invites that will land in your inbox in random order. If you want to retain your sanity, you are best advised to ignore all these updates and hope that you will have the good (?) fortune to be at the right place at the right time.

Calendars are huge status symbols in the office. A full calendar that runs several weeks, even  months, into the future is an indication of how busy you are and, in turn, your importance in the organization. The fact that many of the meetings (the best ones are those that repeat every week or even more frequently) on the calendar are a complete waste of time is beside the point and is not to be questioned. This is where it helps to have friendly colleagues across multiple departments who can mutually invite each other to meetings, and follow up meetings, as needed. There is an ongoing, informal competition for executives to own the busiest calendars, with winners fighting hard to stay at the top.

Calendars can be used to avoid, or at least postpone, serious work. By ‘blocking your  calendar’ (a term that is all too familiar in the corporate world) for relatively unimportant, or even fictitious, discussions and tasks, you can effectively make yourself unavailable for any real work. If you manage to make yourself a part of a team that is geographically distributed, you will be able to practice this master trick with impunity, as no one person will know what all you are (not) doing – your calendar is your armor.

As with every other tool or technique in the corporate world, the calendar phenomenon can be used to your advantage.

Kicking the can down the road

As with most corporate jargon and complex phrases, the term, ‘kick the can down the road’ has a much simpler expression – ‘make it someone else’s problem’. Being a natural part of human behavior, this skill sits very well in the corporate world.

In its simplest form, corporate managers, and even rookies, can easily postpone discussion on a difficult topic by simply stating, “let us sleep over this issue” or “let us take it up in the next meeting (which conveniently does not take place for several months) or with a curve ball, “can we get more data points before we make a decision on this?”. Quite often, in meetings, troublesome topics are deliberately scheduled last on the agenda to provide ample opportunity to be skipped or postponed.

A more serious form of this game is in dealing with customer commitments. It is the dream of all sales executives and managers not to say ‘No’ to prospects and customers. “Can your video game software help me balance budgets?” – Yes, this add-on feature will be given to you free. “Can your company guarantee peak performance, with a dedicated service representative, for three years?” – Yes, of course. “Can your product make me fly?” – Yes, we are including this feature in our next version! These responses, apart from being wildly imaginative and tangential with reference to what is being sold, also make promises to be fulfilled by someone else at a later point in time – classic ‘kick the can’!

At the professional level – call it the NFL level – the can being kicked is the company itself. This is where the C-suite executives (the CEO, CMO and a variety of other C’s) use decisions and indecisions to tide over serious issues temporarily, often at the cost of long term setback – comparable to increasing the size of the fuse on a detonator instead of removing the explosive.  For example, to make up for a poorly designed product, instead of fixing the design, you deploy more support staff to field customer complaints, hoping that customers don’t desert the company before you, the CEO, do. As the Vice President of HR, you appease people by offering inconsistent pay revisions to different groups of employees till everyone is equally dissatisfied – and then you jump ship leaving your legacy – also known as the previously-kicked-can – for your successor to grapple with.

For the suave executive, the ability to kick the can down the road must be matched by the ability to quickly move places.

Meeting Agenda

Anyone who has lived, or even smelled, and survived the shenanigans of the corporate world would be aware that at the core of the corporate culture of wasting time – alternatively called ‘keeping busy’ – is the endless loop of meetings. What is even more fascinating, and appalling at the same time, is the ingenuity of defining an ‘agenda’ for the meeting.

Let us take a look at some of the most common items that masquerade as legitimate agenda ‘topics’:

How did we get here:  This is a common opening theme for many meetings, especially those that have no obvious necessity or purpose. This opens the door for a gruesome postmortem of anything and everything (related or unrelated to the meeting) that happened in the past, that everyone is already aware of. This is somewhat like a doctor in an emergency room, before treating a heart attack patient, calling for a detailed discussion on the treatment options that have evolved over the decades.

Summary: This item is a constant companion to ‘how did we get here’ – in many cases, it may actually be the same as the first item as pretty much nothing new is added or accomplished in the meeting. Between these two agenda components, a kind of relay race is set to carry the baton forward to eternity.

Q&A: The questions and answers session is tagged on to every meeting agenda in the fond hope that people attending the meeting would actually pay attention to what goes on and, then, have the courage and patience to prolong the meeting by asking questions.  A very subtle, but effective, hidden agenda (pun intended) for this topic is to fish for agenda ideas for subsequent meetings.

Next Steps: What is the purpose of a meeting if it cannot beget more meetings in short order? Very often, this topic helps carry forward the same agenda items from the current meeting to a future one since nothing has been achieved, other than consuming coffee and other beverages, in this meeting. And, the real measure of success of a meeting is the increase in the number of ‘topics’ to be discussed in the next meeting (see Q&A above). An (un)intended, and often unpleasant, outcome of Next Steps is the assigning of vague and intangible ‘action items’ to unsuspecting audiences (present and absent in the meeting).

Parking Lot:  The purest form of meeting agendas always includes a ‘Parking Lot’, which is often not in the actual agenda but springs up on a white board in the meeting room. This is where the master of ceremonies, the agenda owner, keeps noting down things that cannot be solved in the current meeting (due to lack of sufficient ‘data points’, if I may add). This provides a ready escape route for one and all not to bother about coming prepared to discuss, leave alone resolve, any of the agenda topics.

If ever there was a competition for definition of an endless loop, ‘meeting agenda’ would be a very strong contender!