Why work does happen at work

| March 28, 2011

In his talk “Why work doesn’t happen at work,” Jason Fried criticizes what he calls “M&M’s”: managers and meetings. But is his harsh attitude justified and/or helpful?

For workers in really toxic environments, I’m sure this is refreshing stuff. He says, (and I’m paraphrasing) “Managers just preside over work, so they like to call meetings to see what’s being done… and effectively halt real work.” And this paves the way for his new (repackaged?) ideas:

  • He proposes “no talking Thursday afternoons” as a strategy for allowing a whole organization to “focus on getting work done.”
  • He arrives at some potentially helpful ideas about using “passive” forms of communication (email, instant messaging) rather than active forms (tapping someone on the shoulder).
  • And lastly, he encourages folks to “just cancel meetings.”

The Book Deal

My past colleague Eric Buth has a theory about how people make “book deal” pitches for popular, business-oriented books (and, by extension, the related speaker circuit). He thinks there are three main elements of successful pitches:

  1. The author proposes an “absolutist, contrarian perspective”
  2. This perspective is backed by anecdotal and/or skewed quantitative evidence
  3. And there is a sense of urgency for spreading the author’s solution(s).

So, does Fried’s talk fall into this pattern?

1. Absolutist, contrarian perspective? You bet.

2. Anecdotal and/or skewed quantitative evidence? Yes again (implied, or at least unsupported).

3. A sense of urgency for spreading the author’s solution(s)? Well, you know, either you’re willing to run your business/organization into the ground, or adopt Fried’s ethos. It’s your choice.

A Middle Ground

His message serves as a reminder to generally be productive—a good message. For small businesses, Fried’s message might make a lot of sense. For folks who work in and for larger organizations, maybe less so.

Maybe it’s easier for everyone to collaborate in smaller organizations. (Among other factors, it probably depends on the communication skills of the participants.) But in a larger organization, with several hundred employees or more, how long can individuals and teams go without checking in to a larger group? A week? A month? A good old fashioned meeting might be a refreshing time to reconnect with colleagues and talk through important project details.

I spend time in meetings coordinating people and projects. Every week. Sometimes my colleagues and I don’t make clear progress, but a lot of the time we make decisions that affect the day-to-day work of our colleagues (for better or worse). They are often valuable, and Fried clearly doesn’t disagree. In the end, his solutions are very sensible. The upshot of his claim seems to simply be: not all meetings are good or useful.

Though Fried’s talk serves as a guidepost, I’m interested in more subtle ways to bring unproductive meetings to a halt.