Meetings and Introverts: Strangers in Strange Lands
I’ll admit as I type the first sentence of this post that I don’t know whether this will conclude a two-part “mini-series” or whether I’ll feel compelled to write further posts. But I wanted to write the follow up that I hinted at to the post I wrote about introversion for programmers (well, specifically me). Tl;dr refresher of that post is that social situations are exhausting for me because of their inherent unpredictability as compared to something like the feedback loop of a program that I’m writing (or even the easily curated, asynchronous interaction of a social media vehicle like Twitter). The subjects I left for this post were “Erik as a problem solver and pattern matcher,” consensus meetings, and two exceptional social situations that I don’t find tiring. The challenge will be spinning these things into a coherent narrative, but I’ll take a crack at it.
Whenever I look in my Outlook calendar and see something like “Meeting to Discuss Issue Escalation Strategy,” I am struck with a surprisingly profound feeling that life is filled with senseless waste, the way one might look in dismay at his sunglasses floating down a river he accidentally dropped them into. I see an hour or two of my life drifting away with no immediately obvious reclamation strategy. My hypothesis is that this is the sort of standard introvert take on what I’ll call “consensus meetings” rather than what many programmers seem to think of as a programmer take on them. As Paul Graham points out in one of my all time favorite posts, “when you’re operating on [a programmer’s] schedule, meetings are a disaster.” But I’m not really a maker these days anymore; for the time being, I’m a manager. And I still find these meetings to be a disaster.
Extroverts draw energy from social situations and become invigorated, while introverts spend energy and become exhausted. And, when I’m talking about social situations, I mean drinks and bowling with a group of friends. Introverts like me enjoy these nights but find them tiring. Now, apply this same sort of thinking to adversarial situations that are veritable clinics in bike-shedding. A bunch of introverts and extroverts gather together and set about deciding what the organizational flow chart of issue escalation should look like. Should it start at Tier 1 support and be escalated to the manager of that group, then over to internal operations and on up to Bill in DevOps? Or should it go through Susan in Accounting because she used to work in DevOps and and really has her finger on the pulse? Maybe we do that for 2 months and then go to Bill because that’s not really sustainable in the long term, but it’s good for now. And, we should probably have everyone send out a quick email any time it affects the Initrode account. And… ugh, I can’t type anymore.
So here sit a bunch of extroverts and me. The extroverts love this. People in general love having opinions and telling people their opinions. (I’m not above this — you’ve been reading my rants here for years, so there’s clearly no high ground for me to claim.) But it’s the extroverts that draw energy from this exchange and work themselves into a lather to leave their marks on the eventual end-product via this back and forth. The more this conversation draws on, the more they want to interject with their opinions, wisdom and knowledge. The more trivial and detailed the discussion becomes, the more they get their adrenaline up and enjoy the thrill of the hunt.
I on the other hand, check out almost immediately. From an organizational realpolitik perspective, these meetings are typically full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The initial meeting organizer turns on the firehose and then quickly loses control of it as the entire affair devolves into a cartoonish torrent of ideas being sprayed around the room as the hose snakes, thrashes, and contorts with no guiding hand. Nobody is really capturing all of this, so the extroverts leave the meeting flush with the satisfaction of shouting their opinions at each other, but most likely having neglected to agree on anything. But, my inclination to check out goes deeper than the fact that nothing is particularly likely to be accomplished; it’s that neither the forum, nor the ideas and the opinions are interesting or important to me.
I earnestly apologize if this sounds arrogant or stand-offish, but it’s the honest truth. And this is where the part about me being an introverted problem solver and pattern-matcher comes in. The meeting I want to have is one where I come prepared with statistical analysis and data about the most efficient flows of information in triage scenarios. I want performance records and response times for Bill and Susan, including in her former role in the case of the latter. I want to have synthesized that data looking for patterns that coincide with issue types and resolution rates, and I want to make a recommendation on the basis of all of that. To me, those are table stakes to the meeting. Whoever has the best such analysis should clearly have his or her plan implemented.
But that’s not what happens in extrovert meetings. As soon as the meeting organizer loses control of the firehose, we’ve entered the realm of utter unpredictability. I start to present my case study and the patterns I’ve noticed, and then someone interrupts to ask if I captured that data using the new or old ticketing system. And, by the way, what power point template am I using because it’s really snazzy. And, anyway, the thing about Susan is that she’s really not as much of a people person, but Doug kind of is. Now the extroverts are firmly in command. All prior analysis goes out the window, and, as people start jabbering over one another reasoned analysis and facts are quite irrevocably replaced with opinions, speculation, gossip, and non sequitur in general. The conversation floats gently down stream and washes up on a distant shore when everyone decides that it’s time for lunch. All of the analysis… unconsidered and largely ignored.
And that, the extroverts taking over and leaving me to space out, is the best case scenario. In the worst case scenario, they start peppering me with a series of off-topic, gotcha questions to which I have to reply, “I don’t know off the top of my head, but I can look into it later.” This puts me at a huge disadvantage because extroverts, buoyed by the rush of the occasion, have no qualms about guessing, fudging, hand-waving, or otherwise manufacturing ‘analysis’ out of thin air. When things take this kind of turn, and someone else “wins the meeting,” it’s even more exhausting.
Regardless of which kind of meeting it is though, the result is usually the same. After lunch and everyone has a chance to forget the particulars of the discussion, it becomes time to email the real decision maker or chat one on one with that person, and re-present the analysis for consideration. Usually at that time, the analysis wins the day or at least heavily informs the decision. The meeting robbed me of an hour of my life to accomplish nothing, as I knew it would, when I looked sadly at my Outlook calendar that morning.
There are two kinds of meeting that have no chance to fit this pattern, however (I’m omitting from consideration meetings that are actually policed reasonably by a moderator to keep things on-agenda, since these are far more rare than they should be). These are meetings where I’m passively listening to a single presenter, or actively presenting to the group. It’s not especially interesting that I’d find the former kind of meeting not to be exhausting since it’s somewhat akin to watching a movie, but the latter is, apparently, somewhat interesting. Presenting is not exhausting to me the way that a night out at a party is exhausting. There are sometimes pre-speech/talk jitters depending on the venue, but the talk is entirely predictable to me. I control exactly what’s going to be said and shown, and the speed at which I’ll progress. There is a mild element of unpredictability during the Q&A, but as the MC for the talk, you’re usually pretty well in control of that, too. So, that is the reason I find typical corporate meetings more exhausting than presenting in front of groups.
A strange thing, that. But I think in this light it’s somewhat understandable. Having reasoned analysis, cogent arguments, and a plan is the way to bring as much predictability (and, in my opinion, potential for being productive) to the table as possible. For me, it’s also the way most likely to keep the day’s meetings from sucking the life and productivity right out of you.