Tuesday, December 21, 2010

500 Meetings a Day

In the early 1980's when I was running a small software company while attending Stanford as an undergraduate, my business activities were limited to the number of phone calls I could receive in a day.   At most I could have 5-10 phone teleconferences.  

In 2010, with email and social networking, all of the limits on synchronous group interaction have disappeared and I now have limitless meetings per day.   When you count the emails I send, the blog comments I respond to, and the Twitter/Forums/Texts/Linked In/Plaxo/Facebook interactions, I can have 500 meetings a day.

What does that really mean?

One of my staff summarized it perfectly when I asked him what keeps him up at night

"The flow of email and expectation upon us all to respond quickly  has become more challenging for me than probably most because of the great diversity of areas that I cover. I've been making changes and removing myself from unnecessary support queues(previously used to monitor day-to-day), delegating as much as possible, and making the needed staffing changes."

The demands of 500 virtual meetings a day on top of the in person meetings results in what I call "Continuous Partial Attention."   A one hour in person meeting implies that you're 50 virtual meetings behind by the end of the face to face time, forcing attention spans to fade about 10 minutes into any in person meeting. The modern electronic world has removed all barriers to escalation and facilitated scheduling.   Anyone can interrupt anything 24x7x365.   Instantaneous frictionless communication is analogous to the revolution in the publishing industry where anyone can be an author/publisher/editor without any triage.

What's the best strategy for dealing with this communication overload?   Here's a few I've experienced:

1.   Declare an end to the madness and stop doing mobile mail and texting.   Some senior executives have taken an inspiration from the Corona Beer Advertisement and thrown their Blackberry into the ether.

2.   Put up a firewall around your schedule.   One of my staff published an out of office message this week.   When I asked him about it, he said

"I’m just trying to take some time and my outgoing message is helping to filter out the emergencies from the last minute stragglers that want to something that doesn’t really need attention until after the break as I’m trying to finish up the necessary end of year items."

3.  Accept the chaos and schedule around it, creating an open access schedule that reserves half the workday for the asynchronous, unplanned work of each day.

4.  Ignore your emails.  Some senior executives just never respond and have inboxes with thousands of unanswered emails.

5.  Delegate email management.   Some executives delegate email to trusted assistants who separate the wheat from the chaff, escalating only a few emails a day to the executive they support.

At the moment, I still do #3, but I must admit it's getting more challenging.  I receive over 1000 emails a day and try to respond to each one, but for the past 6 months, I've been deleting unread every email that begins

"Hi, I'm Bob at xyz.com and our products..."


"Hi, I'm a venture capitalist and I'd like an hour of your time to…"

Hopefully, I'm answering my critical asynchronous communications in a timely way and only ignoring those communications which are a lower priority.    At 500 email and social networking responses per day, I'm approaching the limits of my bandwidth, which I never thought would happen.  

I do my best and clear my queues every night before sleep.   If I've somehow missed you in my 500 meetings a day, please let me know!


Brian McGowan, PhD said...

Increasingly the bandwidth issue has started to put an emphasis on 1) prioritization, 2) 'processing speed', and 3) technology - folks who were able to function quite admirably over the past few years are now struggling mightily to keep up. In this way, technology is both the savior and the demon...but the good and the bad only balance one another IF a person is able to harness the technology to simplify their learning and workload - it seems that folks who are unable or unwilling to embrace the new media and new technologies only get the bad (the 1000 emails, the meetings, the expectations).

We all know folks who find it easy to say no, who are very selective in managing their bandwidth, but who have finite processing speed - this is no longer a viable option.

And, we all know folks who find it easy to process lots of information, but who have to reboot from time to time b/c they are unable to prioritize - clearly this is unproductive.

It seems the only way this will work is for folks to enhance their competencies (prioritization and processing speed) AND embrace technology.

Stepping back for a second, nothing I wrote above is earth-shaking, but I can not shake the sense that these problems are becoming career-limiting at a frightening pace.

Adrian O'Connor said...

I have a very simple system for email. Read it once then delete or file.

I also actively remove myself from any email groups which I dont need to be a part of

I actually use my inbox as my task list so if I've to keep an email in there its a job I have yet to work on.

On saying that I only get 40 emails per day at present so its manageable.

Anonymous said...

There's been a lot of discussion lately about how the internet and related modes of communication and social networks are changing the way our brains work. Check out this and this article by Nicholas Carr. Interesting, although I haven't researched the neuroscience behind the claims.

PBBrady said...

Makes me feel guilty I emailed you last year with a quick question. Thanks for answering it by the way, you saved me about an hour of my day.

kul bhushan said...

I am amazed that with 1000 e-mails to respond, how you do anything else.You must be a blessed man. You still are able to have dinner with family,ride bike, ski, interact with your daughter.Write a daily blog .Find me one of you, oh may be you should go into telling our kids how to do it all in the time alloted by the gods.Thanks for sharing.

I am just trying to be genius.That is hard ,i have to do whole lot of nothing .In the end it may end up whole lot of nothing.

I am getting tired by just thinking about your schedule.

What is the learning moment.How do you change pace.How many words you read per minuit and comprehend if you respond 500 e-mails that if each takes a minuit is more time than a smoker spent on smoking 70 cigarettes. Wow glad you do not smoke.
You also do not need much sleep,in my case that would have meant extra time to day dream.

Let your assistants do more of the work ,they can do it.

Thanks for sharing.I like your thinking,very analytical proactive, engaged mind.

In next life i will ask gods for your stamina.

Caston Thomas @ Voalté said...

Excellent book called, "The Way We're Working Isn't Working: The Four Forgotten Needs that Energize Great Performance" on this subject. (http://www.theenergyproject.com/books)