The often practiced art of non-work

Do you want to get some work done? Or do you want to do something a bit easier instead?

After a couple of decades of working in organisations large and small, I’ve concluded that there are many ways to ensure that nothing at all very much gets done. Here are the most popular ways of avoiding real work, making decisions, influencing real change or taking effective action.

To become effective at forms of non-work, consider this list.

First of all, if you don’t want any real work to take place, ensure that all meetings have at least 10 attendees. Responsibility for any actions will be so diffused no one will ever remember who is supposed to be doing what.  This works even better if the room is filled with people who have lots to say; it is inevitable that you will run out of time and a further meeting will be required to finalise the conversations.

The next best thing to a large meeting is to set up a Working Party. A misnomer if there ever was one.  The purpose of a working party is normally to look at a particular issue or undertake a discreet task.  Unless there are very well defined aims and objectives for the group, or determined timescales for completion, working parties can expand exponentially.

Run some Focus Groups. Decide that nothing can be done until you have some feedback on something from someone or other.  Ensure that, for  maximum non-work impact, multiple focus groups are held for separate stakeholder groups.  Report back the findings of a focus group to a Working Party.

Have an audit. Before any action can be taken it is a good idea to understand where you are now. So an audit of current practices / customers / stakeholders / external factors (etc) should be undertaken.  This could be completed by a Working Party (see above) for maximum inefficiency.  An audit will take at least six months, and the output of which will undoubtedly have to be reviewed by a committee who will have a meeting (see first point).  You can easily get a year of no work at all out of an audit if appropriately combined with other form of non-work.

Take a minuted action from a meeting. Guaranteed to kick the actual thing in the long grass until 48-hours before the next meeting when everyone will look at the agenda and work out what they haven’t done since the last meeting ended with relief all round.

Set up a sub-group to report to the main group / working party (no, I don’t know either, but I’ve seen plenty of them).

Hold a conference. First of all, a great deal of time and energy will be needed to plan the conference, including significant numbers of meetings.  Then there will be the conference itself, which, for those skilled at non-work can take at least several days of work time. There’s the (usual) daylong conference, and then some time required to set up and set down, send follow up emails and the like.  Typically conferences will have a plan for ensuring that the content isn’t forgotten and there’s follow up which most people recognise will never actually take place but everyone will pretend to dance.

Have a team-building activity (no good will ever come of this so just stop now).

Deferring a decision until the next meeting. This can arise in various forms.  ‘Taking something away’ is the main culprit.  Similar work terminating versions will include the need for further interim discussions (a pre-meeting before the next meeting), time for everyone to reflect, or a chance to consider how other organisations or departments might be tackling the same change.

Set up a committee. Like a Working Party on acid, many committees are nothing more than talking shops that create minutes, agendas, papers and buffet orders.  If you make sure that this is a committee with a large number of attendees, this will compound the inaction.

This blog post may feel a little snarky. It isn’t intended to be (well, maybe just a little bit).  There is a serious point here; in most workplaces there is always peripheral, life-sucking, value lacking stuff that gets in the way of the real stuff.  The stuff that makes a difference.

What do you want to be known for? Sitting in meetings and taking an agenda item away for further discussion? Or doing something that is real, valued, makes a difference?  There is of course value in some of the activities I have criticised. But not all of the time.  Not as the default mode of working or approaching any business challenge.

We can do real work, good work, better work.

Or we can perpetuate the bureaucracy.


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