John Kenneth Galbraith called meetings a great trap. “Indispensable when you don’t want to do anything,” Galbraith said, which now ranks among his most famous quotes in what is a very long list of memorable, economic quips. Stuff like, “Economics is an extremely useful form of employment for economists” and “In the choice between changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to do so, most people get busy on the proof.”
We thought today we would revisit Galbraith and his meetings-inspired witticisms in particular, in an attempt to laugh a bit and then, sure, to unpack the contemporary relevance of these twentieth century words. What follows is Galbraith at his best (which was, to be clear, pretty much all of the time), along with my attempts at contextualization:
1. “Men meet together for many reasons in the course of business. They need to instruct or persuade each other. They must agree on a course of action. They find thinking in public more productive or less painful than thinking in private…”
And so here we are in 2017, persuading, agreeing, group-thinking the world to death. And while we are increasingly aware of the anti-productivity derived from too many meetings or from meeting-centric workplace structures, especially those of us living out such meeting-filled lives, do we not agree that thinking in public can be less painful than thinking in private?
The sociologists, no doubt, will have much to say on community and belonging, here, but my own interest is instead in the possibility that we have just uncovered historically seeded motivations for our contemporary practices of widely espousing unchecked opinions (on Facebook, as elsewhere).
2. “But there are at least as many reasons for meetings to transact no business. Meetings are held because men seek companionship or, at a minimum, wish to escape the tedium of solitary duties. They yearn for the prestige which accrues to the man who presides over meetings, and this leads them to convoke assemblages over which they can preside…”
Again, I am reminded of the sociologists. Robert Putman wrote a book in the nineties he titled Bowling Alone and which was mostly just a reminder that we were evolving away from interconnectivity (he wrote this before virtual interconnectivity was a thing, to be clear).
Then K-hole composed a PDF (this was 2014) saying twenty-something year olds were dressing in mismatched styles (think tourist dad of the nineties) in their attempts to persuade onlookers of all types/groups/subcultural affiliations that they belonged. “We were born individuals, branded since birth,” K-hole writers argued, “and we are tired of being individuals.” (Though they said so in their words, and this is my paraphrase.) So what if we rename “meetings”? Something like, “belongings.” Or, “vindications.” Or, “scheduled opportunities for presiding over one another” …
3. “Finally, there is the meeting which is called not because there is business to be done, but because it is necessary to create the impression that business is being done. Such meetings are more than a substitute for action. They are widely regarded as action.”
And thus we arrive at the present, at one of multiple truths, and this is that it is better to be acting than to be failing to act, even when action is merely performance. We are left to consider: if not here, then where?―To where do we evolve as action craving, doers who aspire to be effective yet increasingly value things like work-life balance and interconnectivity?
Along with Galbraith, I suspect we evolve past meetings to some more efficient form of displaying hierarchical orders along with our group memberships, though I leave you time and space for your own considerations. Which is to say, I pass the baton to you, my friend.
Please contact us to learn more about our expertise in Executive Search for Commercial Leadership positions in Medical Device and Biotechnology; including Marketing, Strategy, Sales Leadership, Training, Development, etc. We look forward to the opportunity to help you consistently improve your performance and your business!
Follow me on Twitter @PrimeCoreSearch.