Since the pandemic began, I have noticed a sharp trend toward shorter and more efficient corporate meetings. I have heard from multiple senior executives and leaders in some of the world’s top enterprises that their goal is to avoid having meetings that last more than 30 minutes.
While I can understand the value and need to implement such rules around meetings as we jump from one video call to the next in this pandemic era, I cannot help but also feel a sense of loss as a researcher and anthropologist who is often tasked with answering incredibly complex questions for organizations.
Imagine being asked to decode the meaning of “joy” and then being told that you have to deliver the results in less than 30 minutes. What would you do? You would likely summarize the results of your work, remove any and all of the surrounding color and deliver a sterile output that is neither inspiring nor engaging. Well, there is no time for engagement anyway. How could we possibly expect innovation and marketing leaders to make good decisions in such an environment?
There is a reason why the slow-food movement took off some years ago. I believe people got sick and tired of rushing their way through an activity that really should be a joyous opportunity to connect either with ourselves or with the people who matter to us in our lives. The same goes for meetings where complex and important ideas need to be discussed.
I think we might need a “slow meeting” movement.
If you want to effectively solve complex problems for your organization, you need to give your team the space and time to think, ask questions and arrive at conclusions through debate, ideation and discourse. And the only way to achieve that is to give complexity the time it needs to dissolve into simplicity. We cannot force that transition. It is just not possible without affecting the quality of the decisions it serves.
When you ask complex questions, you get complex answers. It is critical now more than ever that leaders—especially those in innovation, insights and marketing roles—understand how the drive toward efficiency and simplicity can not only affect the quality of their decisions but also leave them without a real say in the decision-making process.
You see, when you ask your employees to make meetings efficient and focus on the simplest of summaries, you ask them to make choices for you. By forcing efficiency, I believe you force simplicity. You make someone else choose what to eliminate and rework in order to convert complex ideas into simplistic outcomes. By the time the work actually gets to you, it has already lost the color and passion that could have inspired you to think differently and make decisions that best serve your organization in the long run.
So, how do we solve the problem?
If you are a senior leader in an organization, then you need to ask yourself two important questions.
First, is it fair for you to put the onus on middle-management to make tough choices and take the risks that they should not be taking in the first place? Let me put it another way: Do you think middle-management is empowered enough to make tough decisions on behalf of the business? Your answer is likely “no.”
Second, do you truly want to have a say in the decisions being made? I can wager a guess that you would vehemently say “yes.” If so, you might need to rethink the time constraints you place on your teams around meetings.
Just to be clear, by no means am I saying relax all rules and waste hours in useless meetings. All I am suggesting is that the punishment should fit the crime. If the problem you are intending to discuss is a complex one, then give it the time it needs. Do not put pressure on your teams to solve the complexity. Get involved in it and roll up your sleeves, so you can not only have a seat at the decision maker’s table but also ensure decisions are being made with the right level of information and knowledge. An important byproduct of doing this is that it will also give your team the support they need, especially when difficult choices have to be made that affect the future of your business.
Will “slowing down for complexity” solve all your innovation problems? No, but it will certainly move the needle in the right direction. It could also make your job more fun, as you will get to do things that you might be missing in your day-to-day work life as a senior leader.