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Monday, March 31, 2014

The Zombie Guide to Meetings

by Steven S. Vrooman
(updated from the orginal post in March 2014 with new stuff February 2017)
In The Zombie Guide to Public Speaking, I write about the ways both you and your audience are often like the undead, shambling around, going through the useless motions, looking for brainzzzzzzzzz. 
This post is about that other bane of shambling contemporary American life -- the meeting.
Have you ever found yourself wishing you didn't have that meeting that was coming up, yet it was YOUR meeting that you called and YOU are leading it?
That is a sign, my friends.
This is a list of what you should not do. See how many zombie-like behaviors you recognize from your last board/staff/faculty/department/work-group/task-force meeting. See if you are the culprit. And let's all try harder this week to stop being these particular kinds of undead:

1. The Straggler: On Mindless Repeat

In Colson Whitehead’s (2011) Zone One, skels are the fully nasty zombies, but stragglers just kind of keep the meaningless job they did before they died, like swaying in front of the copy machine, or like this gas station attendant guy before he gets smart in George Romero's (2005) Land of the Dead
This is the person who stands in front of their Power Point, droning on and on, for years, it seems, even though people have long ago stopped paying attention. These are also the people who keep showing up, of course not having read anything before the meeting, because, you know, it'll be on the Power Point. We are all one of these zombies, I think.
These are the zombies who keep going to the mall, even though they don't remember why. These are the survivors who go to the Winchester, even though there seems to be no good reason to do so.
Monday. Must be time for a meeting. Trudge. Trudge. Trudge. Groan.

2. The Mad Doctor: Sadistic Experiments

In Kiah Roche-Turner's (2014) Wymwood: Road of the Dead, this character in the hazmat suit, known only as "The Doctor" lives in a truck full of zombies he has chained to the wall. He performs horrible experiments on them while dancing to 80s pop tunes for his own sadistic pleasure.
I'm sure there are plenty of times writing ideas on flip charts or role-playing or sharing 3 positive things for the week or building towers with popsicle sticks are important parts of team-building or discussion-fostering. But sometimes, especially, if that is what you always bring to the table, I'll bet your folks sometimes feel like these zombies chained to the wall.

3. Harry Cooper: The Axe-Grinder

In Romero's (1968) classic, Night of the Living Dead, the survivors board themselves up in a house. Mr. Cooper, here, argues, loudly, shrilly, pointlessly, about why everyone should move down into the cellar. In any conversation about what to do, he repeats the same idea every time, as if everyone else hasn't heard it many times before, as if anyone is going to believe him now. 
We've all seen that person in a meeting, the person who gets the eye rolls when they begin to talk, the person who's been grinding the same axe for 15 years and who takes every opportunity to keep swinging it in every meeting.
Yeah. I know. Someday they'll realize I've been right all along. It hasn't happened yet. But it will!! And when it does, they'll be SOOOOOOOOOO happy when I remind them, nicely, that I TOLD YOU SO!!!!!!

4. Brian Hull: The Doomed Optimist

In Lucio Fucli's Zombi 2 (1979), Brian makes the same mistake so many people do in zombie movies: he just can't believe that someone close to him will turn on him.
His wife, Susan, gets bit. But when her bloody corpse rises again and shambles toward him. You know what happens next. He hesitates. She eats him.
How many times have you done that? You looked out at the people around you in the meeting, hoping they were still human beings? Hoping that even though it looked as if they had one overriding concern on their mind, "Must. Get. Out. Of. This. Meeting!", that they were still human beings after all, with souls and emotions. You lobbed out an idea which you were sure they would love. But these are no longer your coworkers! They are monsters. 
We know you are smart, creative, brave and fantastic. But we all have to pee.

5. Rick Grimes: The Camouflage Artist

In the "Guts" episode of the first season of The Walking Dead (2010), Rick and Glenn cover themselves in zombie guts to disguise their human smell to walk past a horde of zombies. Good idea until it started to rain.
And you've seen this person in meetings too, the person who rubs themselves in the rotting viscera of the abandoned ideas of others so the rest of the zombies in the meeting will never know that s/he is not paying attention to what is going on. "I think this all relates to what Phil said last time" is their calling card. Or maybe, " Didn't we discuss this last week, also?" . . . . [tailing off, pregnant pause}] . . . . As long as the meeting ends before everyone realizes they don't know what's going on they'll be safe.
Almost there . . .

6. Steve: The Boat To Nowhere

This is Steve.
His plan, in Zack Snyder's (2004) remake of Dawn of the Dead, is to get to his boat and sail away to an island. Didn't work out. Spoiler alert. These movies always give the characters some kind of hopeless plan: a boat, a helicopter, an RV. If everyone just keeps moving, everything will end up better. In the movie, no one can figure out why this idea is any good. One character, C.J., even points out how stupid the plan is. But then he agrees to go, because, well, why not?
How much does that feel like your organization?
As long as we have a goal, a mission, a benchmark, we'll be fine. What matters is that we are all working together toward common cause. We can even imagine a montage of shots where everyone works together to armor the RV for travel. Look, such teamwork!
STRATEGIC PLANNING!!
Maybe we could get shirts made to commemorate this time together? Can we book a low ropes course?

7. Frank: Analysis Paralysis

In 2006's Dead Rising game, you play as Frank, the photographer in the mall who completes missions, kills zombies and rescues people. As you play, you get constant messages about people in the mall who are being attacked or cornered by zombies. You will get a bar giving you a kind of countdown to when they will die if you don't get there. Sometimes there are more than one at a time. Sometimes you can't save them all.
This is the opposite problem that the "Steve" has. Sometimes you just can't decide. You have no vision, so you go play with the stove or try to find the carousel. In meeting terms, this is the "let's all make sure we continue the conversation" leader. This person often comes with markers and paper. There are lots of sandbox metaphors and talk about getting "out of the box," and just a lot of metaphors about boxes.
Sometimes we know your commitment to developing a "shared vision" is what you're doing when you don't have a vision. Which is okay. Maybe. Maybe not. But can we go back to our spreadsheets now? Deadlines, bro.

Don’t be a Zombie!

There is no simple way to avoid these problems. But if you, like me, often feel like you go to meetings where people are doing the equivalent to the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies trap of nailing cauliflower to trees to pull in zombies because they think it looks like brains, you know we need to try a little bit harder.
How about we remember that the natural state of work life is not the meeting? That natural state of work life, is, um, work. Perhaps the meeting is a fantastic and creative and collaborative work group that 2+2=5s us to victory. Yeah. But usually not, right?
I know I have been to 2+2= -0.6 meetings before. So have you.
Here's two very small but very concrete tips:
  1. Presume all meetings are cancelled. In your head, I mean. Cancel every meeting if you can. Have a really good reason for keeping it. If you presume that you will cancel them all unless needed, it will change things. Cancel a few meetings to keep yourself honest. Can you feel the jubilation in your department?
  2. End every meeting early. The off-topic socialization that seems like valuable team-building and makes the meetings take so long? It will still happen when you close the agenda with 15 minutes left. 
If you cannot do either of those things, ever, you have a meetings addiction problem. You have a repetition and habit and shambling and going-through-the-motions problem. And you, Straggler/Mad Doctor/Steve/Frank, are thus enabling the Axe-Grinders, Camouflage Artists and Doomed Optimists to continue their own shambling search for brainsssssss.
We can do better.

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