Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Seven habits of meeting-starved people

Jerry Stratton, February 29, 2008

A year and a half ago, our department required us to go to Franklin Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It’s a Dilbert-esque manager’s conundrum: how do you teach people to effectively use their time? You send them to meetings. It isn’t that some of the teachings are wrong, it’s that the sessions themselves go against those teachings. The basics are “concentrate your efforts effectively, where they can make a difference and where they can affect long-term goals, and know what your long-term goals are.”

And that would be fine if that was where it stopped, but some of this common sense is wrapped up in terminology that appeals to the early twentieth century efficiency experts that the course disparages at the beginning. For example, “if you don’t keep your promises, people won’t trust you” and “if you talk about other people behind their backs, the people you’re talking to will assume you do the same to them” becomes “you withdraw from your emotional bank account”.

Okay, fine, some people respond better to different analogies. Perhaps their true target market thinks about their relationships with people in the same way they think of stocks, bonds, and savings accounts, or of goodwill to a business. But the course then goes and says it can quantify the deposits in the emotional bank account using real numbers. It internalizes that stopwatch-bearing efficiency expert and applies him to your friendships and relationships. And how do you build your relationships? By giving your colleagues’ e-mail addresses to Franklin-Covey. Seven habits looks a lot like a crush site in a business suit.

Marching up and down the square

When I say that the advice in the course is at odds with the course itself, I don’t mean this in some sort of abstract fashion. During the second session the course encourages you to divide everything that you need to do into one of four squares on a two-by-two matrix. Across the top the headings are “urgent” and “not urgent”, and down the sides the rows are “important” and “unimportant”. Urgent simply means that the task or job is time-constrained. It has to be done now.

Problems arise when you have so many unimportant tasks that important tasks don’t get done until they’re urgent. The goal is to move everything that you can into not urgent and important, and to remove everything that isn’t important. You should be doing important things, and you should have sufficient time in which to do them. An example of urgent and unimportant is—and this is from the session—interminably long meetings that hold you back from doing something useful.

It reminded me of the “Marching up and down the square” scene from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. The drill instructor yells, “Is there anything you’d rather be doing than marching up and down the square?” Every recruit who says that yes, there are better things they could do with their time is… let go to do them. If I didn’t read Dilbert, I might actually have thought it’d be a good idea to say out loud “you mean, like this course that’s taking over four hours out of every week for five weeks?” Like there’s a secret password to get out of the course and go do something useful.

But I’ve long learned that to concentrate your efforts effectively, you need to focus on what you can change, not what you can’t. Which, incidentally, was part of the first week’s lesson, probably to ensure that you don’t buck management in the second week’s lesson by pointing out where the course belongs on the matrix.

I used to see bad meetings as a fact of life. I would go to them, be a presence, and think about other things. But that has created a culture where bad meetings thrive. We end up having four-hour meetings every week over five weeks… about saving time. That’s ten percent of our work week, gone.

Sometimes the self-satire was even more painfully obvious. When talking about how managers will sometimes keep pushing a program even after it becomes obvious that the program isn’t useful, Covey uses the analogy of prescription glasses. He asks one audience member how their prescription glasses work for them; the response is that they work great. So he borrows the glasses and asks another audience member to wear them. Obviously, they don’t work well for that person. And then drawing the analogy, he says to the audience member wearing someone else’s glasses, “There’s nothing wrong with this program that a positive attitude couldn’t correct.”

He didn’t appear to mean to include the 7 Habits program in that criticism, but the way it’s applied in real life makes the analogy obvious—at least to the people who are forced to take part.

A cult of efficiency

I must read too much and watch too many movies to be a highly effective person. At the very end, our instructor, because many of us had apparently not signed our commitment to the 7 Habits program, appeared to channel the coach from Dazed and Confused. “Sign your commitment to your team,” he said, because many of us hadn’t yet signed our “voluntary” commitment to the program.

Our instructor was scarily into this course. During one week’s class, he talked about how he’d never seen anything like it. I have. I used to go to school half a block from the Dianetics building in Hollywood. Common sense teachings are layered with lengthy analysis that leads to self-defeating lessons which will lead to further following the course.

And through it all is the opportunity to spend money. If the meetings don’t waste enough time, you can buy detailed planning books that integrate with pocket planning books that integrate with computer programs that integrate with PDAs. Just thinking about it makes me want to crawl under my desk clutching my $20 copy of Taskpaper.

Besides selling the course and time-wasting time savers, they sell a lot of extra gizmos with the Franklin-Covey name. The first week we got a “talking stick”, a little desk froofrah shaped like a totem pole. I was pleasantly surprised at first. It was the kind of cool thing I enjoy flairing my office with. But mine broke before I even got it back to the office. I didn’t say anything because I thought maybe I’d unconsciously taken my frustrations out on the stick, but enough of them were breaking for the instructor to send out an e-mail asking who needed theirs replaced.

But that wasn’t scary, it was just odd. The scary part comes from having read a brilliant book called A Canticle for Leibowitz. In the book, there’s a charismatic scientist making waves in the scientific community, and one of the brothers of Leibowitz’s abbey is treating him as a new prophet:

Yes—now that there have been a few men like—” his tone became deeply respectful and he paused before pronouncing the name “—like Thon Taddeo—”

The brother pauses that way every time he mentions Thon Taddeo. It drives the abbot crazy in the book. That was the way our instructor said “Stephen” whenever he mentioned Stephen Covey.

The synergy of failure

One of the strangest examples given during the classes—and perhaps the most telling—was that of Mauritius, where police brutality was widespread. After a video about how safe and non-violent Mauritius is, we were told a story about riots. In 1999, police killed a musician while he was in their custody. For many of the oppressed in Mauritius, this was the last straw, and violent riots ensued. From an on-line description that has since gone off-line:

The general population of Mauritians was quick to respond. Before the upheaval gained dangerous momentum, a human chain of 80,000 people was organized, which stretched from the northern to southern coastlines. This was done as an effort and commitment to rebuild relationships following the internal conflict, and provided a tangible and successful approach toward maintaining the peaceful culture of this ethnically diverse country.

This event was portrayed as a victory for synergy. If efficiency and order are the ultimate public goods, then it was a victory. If equal rights and justice are important to society, then it was a failure. Police brutality continued in Mauritius, and people continued to die in police custody.

Efficiency should never be a goal in itself. Efficiency is important only if it achieves good goals. When we make a cult of efficiency, we lose track of the better goals we could be applying ourselves to. We need to be careful not to worship order more than freedom.

“Man, it’s the same bullshit they tried to pull in my day. If it ain’t that piece of paper, there’s some other choice they’re gonna try and make for you. Let me tell you this, the older you do get the more rules they’re gonna try to get you to follow. You just gotta keep livin’ man, L-I-V-I-N.”

  1. <- Substantive Misquotes
  2. Red Light Cameras ->