January 1, 2015

The What Ho! Guide to Meetings

It’s now a commonly accepted fact that there are only two things people do at work – watch YouTube on company bandwidth and attend meetings. Watching YouTube is less complex of the two. It doesn’t require special training and is a skill acquired easily even by marketing managers. Meetings on the other hand are tad more complicated affairs. Your career graph can rise quickly if you learn to navigate through the labyrinth deftly, except in the case of the banking sector, where, of course, you tend to join as a Vice President and steadily work your way down over time. It is thus important that you attain the status of Meeting Ninja as quickly as possible by invoking the boundless Kundalini of Meeting Wisdom that is ever present in your eternal and immortal being.

What Ho!, you say, as you quiver? Worry not. Help is at hand.

History of Meetings

In 323BC, a mighty king named Ashoka invaded the kingdom of Kalinga. In the battle that Ashoka won, hundreds of thousands died. Upon witnessing the calamity, Ashoka is said to have wondered, “Is there a middle path that allows humans to peacefully air grievances and accomplish nothing, while strictly prohibiting participants from inflicting deadly, physical injuries on each other?

Thus was born the concept of a meeting.

So, what are good reasons to hold a meeting?

There are many good reasons to hold a meeting. Most of them disappeared when a tidal wave engulfed the famed city of Atlantis. However, two have survived till modern day through word of mouth.

Reason 1: To serve as wormholes in the space-time continuum.

It becomes important to observe that 99.999% (five nines) of all meetings ever have been and are weekly review meetings. The purpose of a weekly review meetings is to provide a solitary, tenuous link connecting legions of attendees from various points on the space-time continuum. It is not unusual to find that a review meeting may have originated several decades prior to your first attendance, and that both the original convenor and the purpose of that meeting may long be deceased. The meetings serve as the only connections between generations, dead, alive and those yet to come. Think of them as the Tasseract, the four dimensional world you saw in the Interstellar.

Ideally, review meetings must be convened by a Powerful Person. There’s a good reason for this. It is to encourage attendance. However, the meetings will, in reality, by conducted by the Minion of the Powerful Person (also known as the Convenor). The Minion is appointed as a Stand-In Meeting Coordinator by the Convenor, and harbors aspirations of someday becoming a Convenor himself. It is unlikely that the Convenor will attend the meetings convened by him. The Convenor usually has much longer Youtube playlists than mere mortals and thus needs more time with them. Instead, he will make sudden and erratic appearances in these meetings from time to time, and then proceed to try to digest centuries worth of information in thirty minutes or less. The reason that attendance at review meetings is normally high is that people have no way of predicting if the All Powerful Convenor will be present or not in any given meeting. Most people are not interested in finding out what happens when the Convenor shows up and they don’t. Consequently, thousands of ordinary employees attend hundreds of review meetings without ever encountering the Convenor even once.

By now, it must have become self evident that your immediate objective must be to somehow become part of the Minion Talent Pool and hone your skills towards becoming an accomplished Stand-In. An often overlooked perk of being a Minion Stand-In is that it immediately absolves you of any responsibilities to provide any information or answer any questions during meetings. Rather, you are now pleasantly transformed into the exalted and detached state of a Seeker Of Information. Minion-ship is highly prized, and the benefits boundless. You must prepare yourself to win bloody battles so you can become one.

A typical Monday morning weekly review meeting might proceed in the following fashion.

You: All righty folks. Let’s hear from Moses on the Promised Land Project.

Moses: Umm.. let’s see. I don’t have much to add this week. As I have been saying every week over the last twelve years, I have parted the Red Sea. I’ve completed taking delivery of the Ten Commandments on the mountain. The Project, I hope you are aware, has run into unexpected delays. The Chosen People, thanks to their drunken revelry around a golden calf, have been cursed by God to wander around in the desert. I’ve flagged this as a problem, and color coded it red in my weekly emails. I have no idea as to when they will reach the Promised Land. Is any one listening? God, do you want to jump in here and add some color to this?

God: Yawn. Sorry.. I wasn’t listening. Could you repeat that?

Moses: What’s the ETA on the Promised Land?

God: Umm.. I need to look into a couple of things. Can we take this offline?

You: Sorry guys. I wasn’t paying attention, but it sounds like we’re making progress. Moses, could you put that in an email and send it to me? I’ll need that for my update to the Convenor.

Reason 2: It’s the only way to know if a person exists.

The second reason for which meetings are held is that, often it becomes the only way to know who is on the payroll at a company. As you are aware, every so often companies go through troubled times and are forced to “right size” themselves. It’s a little known secret that decisions around who stays and who gets let go is largely based on physical recognition of individuals alone, and nothing else. Rene Descartes once speculated, “I think therefore I am.” That’s the kind of attitude that doesn’t carry a bloke too far in today’s corporate world. Descartes would have been given the pink slip, two weeks of severance and a firm handshake before he could utter “existential.” People don’t exist unless they are in front of you, tweeting from their laptops.

Important Executive With Powers to Fire People (IEWPTFP): “Who is this Karan chap? Is he that tall, impeccably well dressed marketing bloke who shows up right on time every time for our Monday weeklies?”

Minion: “Yep, that’s him.”

IEWPTFP: “We can’t let him go. Karan is a keeper. He’s a jewel. When he speaks, he doesn’t ruffle feathers. What would we do without him? By the way, who is this Arjun fellow? I’ve never seen him ever.”

Minion: “He doesn’t attend our weeklies.”

IEWPFTP: “Let him go.”

Minion: “Hang on. I’ve heard rumors that he’s the engineer who does all the work.”

IEWPFTP: “Hmm.. I don’t know. That doesn’t sound like a convincing reason to keep him around.”

The moral of the story is that even as you try and free yourself up from worldly acts such as meetings to immerse in the more ethereal Youtube, you must be careful to not let your meeting attendance drop to dangerously low levels. A corporate career, much like life, is about striking that happy balance between the yin and the yang of existence and non-existence.

The What Ho! Guide to Meetings

Keep calm, children. Sit in a squatting, meditative pose, close your eyes and listen carefully to the pearls that I’m now about to cast loosely in your direction.

There are insights as ancient as the universe itself, which have led to the development of black arts, which you must apply in a vaguely detached, zen manner in meetings.

The purpose of meetings, repeat after me, is not to find answers or to solve problems. It is to facilitate as peaceful a gathering of as large a number of people as possible. If you fail to grasp this mystical truth that underlies meetings, I see neither Minionship nor Convenorship in your future. When called upon to share things which may alternatively referred to as ‘statuses,’ or ‘updates,’ or ‘debriefs,’ it is critical to restrict yourself to the state of things, and never get into why they are the way they are. Observations must be limited to pithy phrases like ‘We’re making good progress.,’ or ‘Things are on track,’ or the rare and adventurous, ‘We’re getting there.’ As the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna once said, “The nature of things is to have no nature; it is their non-nature that is their nature. For they have only one nature: no-nature.” You can use this quote in meetings for variety.

Delving into the true nature of reality is unwise in large groups of humans. It’s the quickest route to the death of a martyr. Studies show that attending meetings is one of the most stressful activities a human engages in. You have to remember that you are dealing with humans, who in spite of having gone through millions of years of stress of being chased around by sabre toothed tigers, withstanding the harshest of conditions in the tundra and enduring challenges of reading Chetan Bhagat novels, are more stressed about meetings than most other things. You must assuage them. You must comfort them. You must not upset them. They don’t need the truth. They are not looking for the truth. They don’t need the warm and the fuzzies. They just want to be done and over with it, and to be left alone with Buzzfeed and Youtube. Is that too much to ask for? This is not Facebook. No one wants to know what’s on your mind. Avoid sharing anything that can be interpreted as anything. Empathy for the human condition may just be the single most powerful weapon in your quest for corporate dominance.

What if a meeting breaks out into a conversation?

As it transpires, a meeting that has stayed true to the path of prophylactic statuses and updates, will occasionally veer dangerously towards conversation. These are unchartered waters for meetings. It’s sort of like being on a raft on a peaceful river, only to look a little further ahead to find that you’re about to go over the edge of the Niagara.

Stay calm and do as follows.

You must identify the source(s) of such strife first. Often, they tend to be engineers who have a congenital predisposition towards facts, numbers and precision. They will make unseeemly efforts to bring such things to everyone’s attention. If possible, you must avoid the presence of engineers at meetings. The best tactic is to never tell them about existence of meetings, ask them for email updates and read carefully censored portions of their updates at meetings. But, if for some unfathomable reason, the presence of an engineer becomes unavoidable, then you must do what is humanly possible within your means to make sure that he does not pay close attention to the proceedings. This may be achieved by bringing a large box of doughnuts and placing it tantalizingly within reach of said engineer, who will then spend most of his time pondering if he should reach out for the fourth doughnut or not. Or, you can locate him right next to an attractive colleague. The sight of bare feminine legs has been known to place engineers into trances for lengthy periods.

Like Kim Jong Un, you must mercilessly squash sources of facts, data and informed opinions, wherever you may find them. They must not be allowed to rise to the fore. As Nagarjuna’s (there he is, again) Catuskoti principle insists, “There are four possibilities regarding any statement: It might be true (and true only), false (and false only), both true and false, or neither true nor false.” You must never speak in a manner as to make it evident to the audience which one of the possibilities they are dealing with.

Dear Dr. What Ho!, I’ve heard of something called Strategy Meetings. What are they? How are they different?

Life is funny. Every so often, it will throw you a curve ball. You will discover, at some unfortunate point in your career as you rise, that some meetings are held for the sole purpose of sharing facts, data and informed opinions. These often go by the names of ‘strategy meetings,’ ‘planning sessions,’ or ‘off sites,’ and tend to be rather tense affairs. In such meetings, a bloke who has spent the last 72 hours in some sort of a paradoxically frenzied yet comatose state completing a massive powerpoint presentation, also known as “The Deck,” is placed in front of you and several others in the audience who you will not recognize. Many in the audience do not care about The Deck. They are anxious to get, as expeditiously as possible, back to their Youtube playlists. The primary purpose of such meetings is to evaluate the levels of mental deterioration that an organization has achieved so those who have completely fallen apart can be humanely filtered out. It is vitally important to display mental acuity and presence at such gatherings. The good news is that this is not hard to do.

There are many ways to do this. Nearly all of them draw their inspiration from the Thomson’s gazelle, found in the African savannah. “Tommies,” as our hooved friends are called, are known for their bounding leaps, which, although draw attention to themselves, are meant as a show of strength to predators. There is much to learn from Tommies when it comes to meetings.

One of the things you must do, at some point during strategy meetings, is to suddenly get up from your chair and wander about aimlessly in the room, as though pondering a fundamentally deep thought. This, even as it invites scrutiny of your presence in the room, is an unmistakable show of strength. The Very Important People in the room, gnashing their teeth and looking for a prey to tear apart, will respect and fear the awe inspiring purposelessness of your act, leave you alone and turn their attention towards the weaker of the species.

Natural selection is one of the most fascinating mechanisms of nature. You must use it to your advantage.

Another method involves asking the hapless presenter to go back two slides at some arbitrary point in his presentation, and then staring deeply and just long enough at it to make people wonder if you’re on the verge of a massive break through, and following it up with a casual, “This is interesting. We need to talk. Let’s catch up offline.” That last part, a promise on which you have no intention of following up, will make those higher up on the totem pole speculate as to the nature of your seemingly impressive cognitive powers while subtly signaling that you’re a team player and chose to not humiliate a colleague in public.

That’s not all. Resourceful Darwinian creatures attending meetings have been known to draw random venn diagrams and 4×4 boxes, conduct arbitrary SWOT analyses, connect unconnected dots looking backwards and forwards, and even have gone to the extent of taking imaginary important phone calls during meetings, all with the express purpose of signaling the vitality of their beings to would-be predators. Be careful however. Not everything in the manual works. Objects in the rear view mirror can sometimes be much, much closer than you think. Venn diagrams must be drawn using circles. Drawing them using quadrilaterals can have serious, negative consequences. Remember that the public can take only so much. Take care to not exceed certain thresholds. I once heard a guy proclaim loudly, “This is never going to scale in China,” before being escorted out by armed security.

The Seventh Mandala of Meeting Wisdom

A lesser known and harder to execute technique is the art of usurping another man’s evolutionary advantage. If mastered, it will essentially guarantee that you will rise to become the youngest CEO in the annals of the company. This requires knowledge of the meanings of 1,000 most common English words, basic counting skills and impeccable timing.

Listen carefully. We’re about to enter the Seventh Mandala of Meeting Wisdom.

This is how it works. There will be always be one person in the room who knows the answers. 99 out of 100 times, the Person Who Knows Everything will be an Engineer. This is very good news for you because the Engineer, while in possession of the truth, is completely devoid of any skills when it comes to imparting such truth to large groups of people, who in turn couldn’t tell the Truth if it walked up and slapped them in their faces. This is where you come in. Look around the room. See if you can spot a slightly overweight, wearing-a-shirt-one-size-too-small, unkempt, unshaven individual wearing a wild eyed, skeptical look on his face. He’s the Engineer. Keep a close eye on him because it is just a matter of time before he begins to uncontrollably and spontaneously emit factual, relevant and actionable information. This is neither the time nor the place to ponder as to why engineers do what they do. No one knows. They are the selfish genes of the corporate pool, whose sole intent is to ensure that facts and other important things make it into the next generation of humans. Out of the Engineer’s mouth will, all of a sudden, emanate words of unspeakable wisdom. Ideally, you should seat yourself right next to him. When the Engineer’s brilliance bursts forth, it will leave people dazed and blinded. In fact, many will not be able to recall memories of hearing the Engineer speak. Your job is to listen very carefully to the Engineer, decode the facts and translate to a dumbfounded audience in plain English, using as small numbers as possible. If you do this well, the Engineer’s wisdom thus effortlessly becomes associated with you, and seventy two virgins will garland and receive you in Heaven upon your arrival.

Go forth and conquer splendidly, you Natural Born Minions and Convenors. Those Youtube playlists await.

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