The curse of the meeting on the bad run
men January 1944 The Office of Strategic Services, America’s wartime intelligence agency, released a brief document. The “Simple Sabotage Field Manual” gave advice on how ordinary European citizens could disrupt the German war machine.
To cause physical damage, the guide tells the “citizen-saboteur” to use everyday objects such as salt, nails, pebbles and candles as weapons. This part of the guide is a window into historical derring-do: dried sponges that can expand to plug sewage systems, padlocks on unprotected buildings, various references to emery dust.
But the guide also describes a less direct form of sabotage, which is very familiar to anyone who works in an office today. This type of barrier includes behavior that confuses, criticizes and delays. Saboteur managers should make sure that three people have to agree on things when one would do them. Employees should spread disturbing rumours. Everyone should “give long and incomprehensible explanations when questioned”. At some point it seems that a wartime effort to hurt the Nazis was mistaken for real guidance on how to run the modern workplace.
No part of the manual is better known than its advice on how to turn meetings into attention-grabbing weapons. Keep them when there is more important work to be done, he urges. Talk as often and as long as possible. Reopen questions that have already been decided. Pick up irrelevant issues when you can.
It’s hard not to read all of this and wonder if an enemy is targeting your own organization. And once that thought enters your mind, you also begin to wonder if all kinds of behavior show guidance in a revised edition.
• Call for hybrid meetings whenever possible to maximize inefficiencies. If you are in the room together, start side conversations to cause confusion among remote attendees.
• If you are on Zoom, disconnect yourself slowly or not at all. Pretend not to hear anything even when you can. Look at the spill. Put on eight pairs of headphones. Shrug to theater. Entire geological periods can pass in this way.
• Or, call the meeting on your phone, turn away and put the phone in your pocket. Go for a long walk. If done right, one person can make tens of other people abandon a meeting.
• Always show up to meetings a few minutes late. This is especially important if you hold a senior position. Nothing happens until you get there except for awkward exchanges about weekend plans. If discussions have started, ask for a quick summary. If you have co-buyers, stagger your arrival times so that you always go back to the beginning.
• Don’t have an agenda. Just turn up and look expectant. If there is pre-reading, don’t do it. Never agree on action items or take minutes.
• If there is an agenda, take advantage of the “law of violence”, a rule of thumb coined in 1957 by Cyril Northcote Parkinson. This refers to an imaginary committee whose members are asked to decide on proposals for a nuclear power plant and a new bicycle shed. With a lack of knowledge in nuclear power, the committee is looking at the plant. Where everyone is an authority, like the bike shed, endless debate ensues. Whatever version of the bike shed you have – coffee machines, Oxford crockery – get it up early.
• If you are giving a presentation after someone else, take a full age to find it. Faff around in the wrong package. Pretend you can’t see the slideshow button until someone else points it out.
• Say things like “there are no bad ideas”, so that everyone offers their own bad ideas. At the end ask “does anyone have anything else?” and wait as long as it takes for someone to fill the silence. Hopefully it will be about the coffee machine and everything will start again. Conclude by saying that you think it was a very useful meeting but don’t specify how.
If you accidentally find yourself behaving this way, listen to the latest episode of Boss Class, our management podcast, to learn how to run a better meeting. If you’re trying to cause trouble, your cover is blown. ■