Douglas Coupland agrees that meetings are toxic Jason 02 Jun 2006

26 comments Latest by Jesus Domingo

Someone just sent us this quote by Douglas Coupland regarding meetings and life:

Here’s my theory about meetings and life; the three things you can’t fake are erections, competence and creativity. That’s why meetings become toxic—they put uncreative people in a situation in which they have to be something they can never be. And the more effort they put into concealing their inabilities, the more toxic the meeting becomes. One of the most common creativity-faking tactics is when someone puts their hands in prayer position and conceals their mouth while they nod at you and say, “Mmmmmm. Interesting.” If pressed, they’ll add, “I’ll have to get back to you on that.” Then they don’t say anything else.

Our take on meetings (and plenty more) can be found in Getting Real, our PDF book. Meetings are Toxic (PDF) happens to be one of the free sample chapters as well.

26 comments so far (Jump to latest)

ramanan 02 Jun 06

That someone was me. It was strange reading the phrase in a work of fiction.

Maarten Hendrikx 02 Jun 06

I totally agree: meetings can indeed by very bad for productivity. We tend only to have meetings when we absolutely need to be all in the same room together to explain a concept or an idea or someting along those lines.

We mostly use email for communication about projects, because I personally think IM can be equally bad for productivity when you haven’t got the self control to stay on subject or to prevent ending up IM’ing each other ‘cool’ links.

justin pitts 02 Jun 06

Another common ‘tactic’ is called listening. Strangely, it looks the same.

matt 02 Jun 06

I hate meetings with a passion. But I also hate people who always have an answer and love the sounds of their own voice. I’ve performed the ritual above many times, because I really do want to mull something over before opening my trap.

SoTrue 02 Jun 06

Another common ‘tactic’ is called listening.

Peter Nabicht 02 Jun 06

Be careful with saying it is Douglas Coupland’s opinion. It was in a work of fiction, so unless it is confirmed by Coupland himself to be his opinion then we should keep in mind that this is the opinion of a fictional character named Ethan. Coupland said the following about Ethan, which can be found here: “Of all the narrators in all of my books, Ethan is actually the least like me.”

I agree that meetings are toxic, I think we should just all be careful about assuming fiction is fact.

Deepak 02 Jun 06

I have a question. Do people consider brainstorming a meeting as well? In my experience 75% of meetings are useless. The ther 25%, many of which are often brainstorming sessions, are excellent (even if they are on Skype)

Adam Roth 02 Jun 06

…from his newest novel “JPod”.

D Givens 02 Jun 06

Thinking that all meetings are toxic seems as silly to me as claiming that all coffee is great, that any Mac is better than every PC, that every Baldwin is talented, or all Italian Americans are just like the characters on the Sopranos.

10 minutes of face-to-face can sometimes save hours or days of misspent effort based on orphaned assumptions. Maybe the problem is less the meetings themselves, and more the agenda-less self-promotional preen fests that pass for meetings in many organizations.

Michal Migurski 02 Jun 06

Why would people need to be creative in meetings? It’s not what meetings are for, generally. This excerpt would be just as valid if it was arguing that e-mail was toxic, or IM was toxic, or talking out loud was toxic. It’s the dishonesty that’s the problem, not the context.

Nate Cavanaugh 02 Jun 06

“One of the most common creativity-faking tactics is when someone puts their hands in prayer position and conceals their mouth while they nod at you and say, “Mmmmmm. Interesting.” If pressed, they’ll add, “I’ll have to get back to you on that.” Then they don’t say anything else.”

Um, sorry, but this is a boneheaded statement. That “tactic” is so vague as to mean anything, and assigning it to a lack of creativity is retarded.

That”tactic” could be code for any of the following:

“What you have just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent answer did you approach anything even close to an answer. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having heard it. You are awarded no points, and may God have mercy on your soul”.

“This idea sounds good, but I want to think first before committing to an idea that has the potential to be brilliant, or one of those ideas that sound brilliant at first pass, and turn out to be something that guarantees the destruction of our company, sanity, morality and humanity”

“You are such a flake, and I really didnt follow you on any of your freakish tangents that dont relate in the slightest, but instead of laughing in your face for your lack of communication abilities, I’ll politely hold off, and wait until I comment on the 37signals blog, and make fun of you there”

“Hmm, interesting”


Perhaps Im overreacting to an oversimplification, though.

Killian 02 Jun 06

In my experience getting in front of a client is very very important and should probably be distinguished from ‘toxic meetings’

All the email and IMs and phone calls in the world are worthless when you are trying to convince a potential client that you are the right person/company for the job

The same goes for trying to convince a person your POV is the way to procede without the personal connection and trust that comes from a face-to-face encounter

Does 37signals have a special category for worthwhile meetings? I was lucky enought to witness a 37signals blitz at DePaul a few weeks back and I thought that was a great non-toxic example of a meeting

ramanan 02 Jun 06

Perhaps Im overreacting to an oversimplification, though.

You’re overreacting to something a character says in a novel.

Igor M. 02 Jun 06

Meeting is the place where you gather all your notes, ideas and other junk and then present it to your VP or CEO as if you’re on stage waiting for applause.

I prefer standard communication within the office. As simple as that.

Phil 02 Jun 06

Meetings are good for at least one reason… a) it forces people to bring some issues to the table. Sometimes when my group has gone a few weeks without a meeting it turns out someone was struggling to implement some complicated solution, when another team member knew a much easier and better solution. This often won’t come up over email or phone, but has a way of coming out at meetings. Some meetings are great for brainstorming, as long as they don’t go on too long. b) its harder for emotions to get misread. Some (especially) developers write very brief emails, that people can interpret as terse or sarcastic, and it causes all sorts of hurt feelings etc.

Tony 02 Jun 06

“What you have just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent answer did you approach anything even close to an answer. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having heard it. You are awarded no points, and may God have mercy on your soul”.

@Nate,
I think that has to be the first time that Billy Maddison was paraphrased in the SvN comments. Is there some kind of award for that? :)

Scott Brooks 02 Jun 06

Meetings can kill you slowly.

The best idea for a small comapny that I have used in various projects is simply the “Ten at 10”

Ten minutes standing around talking about the objectives for the day, who is on what, what is on fire, what happened yesterday.

Those ten minutes strategically placed at 10 …perfect. It allows everyone to come in take care of thier stuff. Then just when you are getting the felling like you need a coffee or a scotch ….you have a quick informal face to face chat with everyone.

cheers

Scott

Joe Grossberg 02 Jun 06

Here’s my theory about meetings and life; the three things you can’t fake are erections, competence and creativity.

He’s 2/3 wrong.

You can *definitely* fake competence — it’s called ingratiating yourself with the boss until he has a blind spot.

And you can also fake creativity; few people know the difference between “pretty” and “creative”, or “weird” and “creative”.

You can’t fake competence if your audience is competent, and you can’t fake creativity if your audience is creative.

But let’s face it — when you’re dealing with a “suit”, they often have no idea how to tell which developers or designers are competent and are even more clueless about creativity.

Thankfully, there are exceptions.

Kego 02 Jun 06

“Thinking that all meetings are toxic seems as silly to me as claiming that all coffee is great, that any Mac is better than every PC, that every Baldwin is talented, or all Italian Americans are just like the characters on the Sopranos.”

I think that sums it up pretty well. Not all meetings are bad. You can generalize on the effectiveness of meetings based on how the meeting orchestrated and ran.

IMO, on of the biggest flags that a meeting will be a waste of time is by the size and length of it. Once you get more than 4 people in a meeting, or the meeting goes over an hour, the trade off drops exponentially. I worked at Sprint, and the vast majority of meetings I had to attend involved 10 – 30+ people in a room for hours. I don’t know how many times I would look around the room when someone was speaking and notice that the vast majority of people weren’t even paying attention (usually checking email on their laptops or just not paying attention). A TOTAL waste of time… I would say they wasted thousands if not millions of dollars having people waste their time attending these stupid things. Usually, it was just 3 or 4 people doing all the talking, everyone else was just sleeping.

Geoff B 02 Jun 06

Justin said… “Another common ‘tactic’ is called listening”

Oh man do I agree. “Listening”, along with it’s evil twin “discussing”, can most definitely be faked. One inner circle of meeting hell is where a person who has already made up his mind shows his remarkable and commendable willingness to “listen” and “discuss” for as long as it takes to get everyone in the room to go along with his approach. He will mimic consideration, concern, and thoughtfulness. He will nod, furrow his brow, and ponder. The content of the discussion will never, ever change his mind, not now, not three hours from now, not thirteen hours of rescheduled meetings three weeks from now. Never. But he’ll never come out and insist that things be done his way (even if he’s in the position of power to do so). He will discuss until you agree he is right.

Astonishingly, the people who do this often truly believe that they are open minded and willing to consider all the angles.

Meetings, discussions, listening - these things all take place in heaven and hell. L’enfer, c’est les autres.

Mike Swimm 02 Jun 06

“All generalizations are false, including this one.”
- most often credited to Mark Twain.

Also is someone going to fix the html in the original post? “toxic” is all messed up.

Brian Flanagan 02 Jun 06

That’s not the guy I studied bartending under, is it?

blah 03 Jun 06

“in fact, the growth of links is exponential…”

flat wrong.

paths between n people = 1 + 2 + … + n-1 = O(n^2), which is still big. this has been well-known in software for 30 years.

meetings are almost as stupid as retarded know-it-all internet marketers who spend half their day preaching and moralizing to others while not even bothering to read PeopleWare.

Jesus Domingo 03 Jun 06

It’s also very annoying when people try hard to come up with questions that don’t even need attention or have no relevance, just so to make themselves look that they know what they’re doing or have a say on the issue/situation. Really wastes time and burns you out.

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