Tech Time-Wasters

Nov 06, 2010 No Comments by

Many Brits cheered new British Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent ban on cell phone use during cabinet meetings.  Cameron, who is an avid technophile himself, (his favorite cell phone game is reportedly Angry Birds) reasoned that the entire group would be more focused and would conduct the people’s business more quickly by paying full attention.  Read the article here.

Yes you, Sir... Please hang up that phone!

I agree.

But I break his rule every day.

I am as guilty as anyone of using my tech gadgets during meetings.  It’s hard to resist the urge to check my email or respond to that buzzing Blackberry – especially if the topic at hand is of marginal interest.  Some would argue that tech gadgets have made us far more productive – others would say the opposite.

The Case for Gizmos: We all sit in a lot of meetings. Many of them are facilitated by the appropriate use of technology. Below are a few examples of the good things tech gadgets, software apps and gizmos can do for us.

Hey Steve, isn't the phrase "concise PowerPoint presentation" actually an oxymoron"?

I can see the value of:

  • using a laptop to take notes during a meeting so action items don’t fall through the cracks.
  • shooting a quick email to someone who is not attending the meeting, but could answer a key question that moves the dialogue forward.
  • using a concise PowerPoint presentation to “keep everyone on the same page”, drive the discussion of topics in a clear order and pass along vast amounts of data that could never be communicated verbally.
  • saving paper by using electronic versions of all the documents you might want to reference during a meeting.
  • using a computer to look up germane information from the company archives or the web “in the moment”.
  • using an online meeting tool with live chat capability such as WebEx or GoToMeeting to host a discussion involving dozens of locations without wasting time or resources traveling.
  • using an online survey app like Zoomerang or Survey Monkey to gather feedback from hundreds of people without a single sheet of paper.
  • … and so forth.

So there are good uses for technology, apps and gizmos.  I have seen them help groups be much more productive than they would otherwise be.

Gizmos Gone Wild: There are however many very good examples of technology run amok.  Have you recently witnessed people doing any of the tech-enabled moves listed below during your meetings?

  • …staring into their laps at web-enabled cellphone to check the latest sports scores or political news?
  • …taking a phone call during a meeting and whispering instructions to their staff or their children?
  • …playing Angry Birds on an iPad or playing Solitaire on a laptop?
  • …texting friends about the party they went to last night or the restaurant they want to check out at lunchtime?
  • …checking email – and worse yet, drafting long email replies as if they were alone at their desk?
  • …or this horror of horrors: listening to music through headphones DURING a meeting?

(OBTW: Yes, I have sadly seen every one of these crimes in my time…)

What to Do, What to Do? In an effort to promote shorter, more effective meetings, I offer the following list of tips for dealing with tech time-wasters and attention-robbing toys:

Seriously? Yes. This was actually cool at some point in our techno-past.

1. Just (Don’t) Do It. Set an example by turning off your phone for an entire meeting. Set it on the table in front of you so everyone can clearly see that at least ONE person is paying attention in this meeting. This is tough to do the first time, but it gets easier…

2. Play the No Blame Game: Set clear, shared ground rules for the use of texting, cell phones and laptops before the meeting starts – any attempt to curb the key-clicking, screen-flicking or clumsy thumb-typing once the meeting has started could make technology users feel like they are being singled out.

3. Avoid Death by PowerPoint: Only use a slide deck if you need it. Always use a slide deck if you need it. In other words, develop a collective sense of judgment for the use of slides. Think hard before you create a 48-slide deck for a 60-minute meeting. Make the first slide of any deck an agenda and only include the slides that actually needed to drive that agenda.

4. Consider a 2-call rule for personal calls: If you must keep your phone on, try this rule that my wife and I established with our kids:

...but Moooom, Please?

“Call any time.  If I don’t answer the first time you call, it’s because I’m in an important meeting with the boss. Call twice and I will excuse myself.  But you had better be dead or dying… and not just asking permission to go to a friend’s house.”

5. Chuck It in the Bucket: A executive friend of mine once placed a small wicker basket in the center of his conference room table and (highly) encouraged people to toss their phones into it at the start of a meeting and resist taking them out until the end.  It was fun to watch the hesitation, but once they understood that the boss was serious, everyone complied. The non-stop buzzing created an air of tension that hastened along the meeting process.

6. Embrace It: If the flow of the meeting can survive it, consider taking a 5-minute “tech break” half-way through your meeting or once every hour to allow people unfettered access to email, texting and cell calls.  Just keep it to 5 minutes or your meeting may be over…

7. Stand Up for Progress: Hold your entire meeting standing up.  It may not prevent pocket texting, but it should pretty much eliminate the use of laptops!

8. Use a “One Laptop Rule”: Allow only the person taking the official notes for the meeting to use a laptop. Check in with the note-taker regularly to make sure that’s ALL they are doing with it.

9. If you Can’t Beat ‘Em, Ban Em: Declare an outright ban on smartphones, iPads and open laptops during meetings.  It sounds harsh and it will surely meet with groans the first time you do it, but this single improvement will probably cut your meeting time by 10-25% because people will be focused.


Questions for Chatter:

  1. Have you experienced people not paying attention, not focusing or not participating in meetings because they were actually “not there”?
  2. How much time have you seen wasted re-visiting decisions that were made while half of the key attendees of a meeting were not actively engaged?

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