Alan Jacobs Gets It

Alan Jacobs Gets It January 7, 2013

From The American Conservative, by Alan Jacobs, essayist:

So in 2005 a very thoroughly researched and well-argued scholarly article was published that demonstrates, quite clearly, that group productivity is an illusion. All those brainstorming sessions and group projects you’ve been made to do at school and work? Useless. Everybody would have been better off working on their own….

It’s because the world is run by extraverts. (And FYI, that’s the proper spelling: extrovert is common but wrong, because extra– is the proper Latin prefix.) Extraverts love meetings — any possible excuse for a meeting, they’ll seize on it. They might hear others complain about meetings, but the complaints never sink in: extraverts can’t seem to imagine that the people who say they hate meetings really mean it. “Maybe they hate other meetings, but I know they’ll enjoy mine, because I make them fun! Besides, we’ll get so much done!” (Let me pause here to acknowledge that the meeting-caller is only one brand of extravert: some of the most pronouncedly outgoing people I know hate meetings as much as I do.)

The problem with extraverts — not all of them, I grant you, but many, so many — is a lack of imagination. They simply assume that everyone will feel about things as they do….

So, extraverts of the world, I invite you to make a New Year’s resolution: Refrain from organizing stuff. Don’t plan parties or outings or, God forbid, “team-building exercises.” Just don’t call meetings. (I would ask you to refrain from calling unnecessary meetings, but so many of you think almost all meetings necessary that it’s best you not call them at all.) Leave people alone and let them get their work done. Those who want to socialize can do it after work. I’ll not tell you you’ll enjoy it: you won’t. You’ll be miserable, at least at first, because you won’t be pulling others’ puppet-strings. But everyone will be more productive, and many people will be happier. Give it a try. Let go for a year. Just leave us alone.

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  • Andy Holt

    I wish I would have had this before my meeting-obsessed, collaboration-demanding boss fired me two weeks ago. Alas, the world is run by extraverts, and we introverts must adapt to survive.

  • Barb

    whoa–pretty harsh words. As a card-carrying extravert–I’m quite offended by this sweeping put-down. I’m was usually the only extravert in the group where I’ve worked and were I worship. I’ve learned to help my intoverted brothers and sisters come prepared for meetings and found ways for them to make their input known. I really disagree that group productivity is a false idea. Oh, and I have a great imagination. I think this writer is talking about more than one personality characteristic. In MBTI speak, he seems to be describing in ESTJ.
    I know that some of you live in the opposite kind of world–you are the lonely introvert. I’ve come to this conclusion–it’s easier for an E-type to understand an I-type and to adapt to that kind of culture than the other way around (an I-type to understand and adapt to E-culture). There I’ve said it (and in an extravert’s world–that makes something real for me). we love feedback, we need it–actually feedback makes us feel loved.

  • Phil Miller

    In my company, both the principles like to have informal meetings with the people involved in a project to discuss ideas about projects, and while it doesn’t necessarily bother me, I don’t think it’s really the best way to come up with ideas. There’s been all sorts of research about how people come up with solutions to problems, and one thing that comes up over and over again is that flashes of insight rarely come when they’re being demanded. They often come when you’re brain is preoccupied with something else or when you aren’t focusing on anything in particular. It’s why people have epiphanies in the shower or while simply taking a walk.

    American culture is definitely geared toward extraverts, and that even extends into many churches. Oh, and group project in a academic environment are the spawn of Satan. They simply are a way for the other members of the group to do work for the laziest one in the group.

  • Eh, I am sensing a pretty strong false dichotomy here. It’s not like there are only two choices: useless meetings or working alonr, productive and happy. I have done a lot of my best work when I am working with someone else and we get a synergy going on–bouncing ideas off each other and building on what the other person comes up with. Especially in my field (law) it can be extremely useful for two sets of eyes to be on a problem at the same time. The other guy might see something I miss, or vice versa.

    But even with larger group meetings, certainly there’s a point of diminishing returns after which a meeting becomes a useless and unproductive morass. That said meetings are efficient ways for multiple teams or multiple workers to report on and coordinate their efforts quickly. Perhaps nobody is productive at a meeting, but a properly conducted status meeting can help everyone be more productive after they walk away from it. Meetings for meetings’ sake? Of course that’s nonsense. But that’s not the only kind of meeting that there is.

  • Damien

    It’s been known for a long time that group brainstorming is not a very effective way to generate new ideas, and that . In fact, I can’t see why we should think that putting 10+ people in the same room for, say, 20 minutes, will yield great ideas. It would seem much better to let people think about it over a period of several days and come back with the best thing that they might have come up with, so they can properly argue in favor of it.

    However, I think it’s unfair to conflate *brainstorming* and *meetings*. The vast majority of meetings I’ve attended did not involve brainstorming. Neither did all the collaborative work that I’ve done in my school days and in the workplace. The point of meetings should not be to generate new ideas but to evaluate ideas that people have already come up with on their own, with each additional pair of eyes bringing a different perspective and expertise.

  • Damien

    *, and that individuals are better at it than groups.

  • Dan English

    #4 Kullervo: agree with your “meetings for meetings sake”.

    In my experience, I have found that many of the meetings I am asked to attend fit more in the category of “pleasing activities” versus “pleasing results”. Very rarely have I heard someone complain about attending a meeting that leads to ACTION. With Alan Jacob’s thoughts in mind, maybe that is why there isn’t much action / results….because the meetings are more designed (whether consciously or subconsciously) to satisfy an extraverts need to be energized.

    As an extravert, I will accept Alan’s challenge in the ways that I can. 🙂


  • I guess so. Certain types of productivity are better managed in solitary work environments or when you are on your own schedule, but…

    Rookies in a field need meetings to acclimate

    Meetings are good for at least the extraverts

    Productivity as a bottom line does not foster work relationships that are whole

    Meetings give face time – real relationships need face time regardless of personality

    Meetings are over-rated but so are lone ranger operators.

    and probably the most important…

    Different Cultures assess the value of a meeting differently. Some meetings are in fact geared towards introverts and allow time for each voice to be heard – specifically in indigenous cultural settings.

    Bringing this topic up should enrich the conversations that need to happen and the hopefully curb the ones that don’t.

  • metanoia

    I love meetings!!! Who can argue with free donuts, coffee and getting paid for not working! 😉

  • J.L. Schafer

    I’d like to carefully read everyone’s comments above, but I gotta go to a meeting.

  • Adam

    To equate meetings and brainstorming is to misunderstand the purpose of the meeting, and subsequently why they don’t work. By this same logic, hammers also are dysfunctional because they fail at cooking soup.

  • MatthewS

    oh no, Andy! May 2013 find you in a better situation…

  • I’d comment but I’m late for a meeting.

  • Alan Jacobs is a professor at Wheaton College–headed to Baylor next year. He is one of my favorite resources on what is going on: see what he is reading at Tumblr.

  • MatthewS

    I tend to be extraverted but I am one who dislikes most meetings. I tend to be an “A” student who has hated almost every group project; most A students do in my experience. I think that meetings have wasted a lot of time and are literally bad for your health (there was a study about that a while back).

    But there have definitely been times that an idea arose out of the middle of the table, as a result of collaboration and brainstorming. Some of the most successful projects I’ve been involved with had significant elements that I was initially dubious of but the wisdom of others won out.

    I recall a post a while back where Scot stated that most people don’t really change their minds after hours of meetings, and that one meeting where the matter is decided is better than months of meetings by a committee (that’s from memory and surely an imperfect summary). But that’s different from saying that there ain’t no such thing as group productivity or group creativity.

    Considering the other side of this, there are people on many (most?) teams that left to their own devices will do worse than if they have to justify and explain themselves once in a while.

  • MatthewS

    A thought: If the premise is correct then would JesusCreed would be better served to turn off comments and for everyone to simply read the posts, without dialogue?

  • A bone to pick. Just because “extra-” is the original Latin prefix means pretty much nothing about the proper spelling of the current English word. My dictionary says “extrovert” and doesn’t even have an “extravert” option (although it does acknowledge the Latin prefix with an “a”), and so I’m going to just continue using the same spelling I always have without fear or guilt.

  • tm

    Thanks Mark – was going to say the same thing (after running it past my colleague in Classics). When you are being pedantic you should try and be right.

  • I’ve often felt like the purpose of gathering together with laity at my church should be a less purposeful sharing of visions and hopes rather than a structured decision-making, action-item assigning process. I’ve got three church meetings this week! Grrr…

  • Joe Canner

    I am an introvert (or is it intravert?) who likes meetings that are called for sharing information and/or decision making. I have found that, left to themselves, some managers do not do a very good job of communicating expectations and tasks unless you are sitting in the same room.

    I am not particularly fond of team-building exercises and I don’t like meetings that don’t result in any firm decisions, action plans, or deliverables.

  • Phil Miller

    My wife calls team building exercises “forced fun”. She works for a large company, and they are constantly making them play stupid games and stuff. Many of the people she works with have advanced degrees. It’s ridiculous when companies try to treat people like they’re children.

  • I love this article. So right on! 🙂

  • John I.

    Barb, stay in your office.

    My time is billed out to clients, and I’ve never, in 20 years, left a meeting believing that a client got more value for their money than if the meeting had not been called.

  • Brian

    I’m sure the folks conducting the experiment were introverts. (Or is it intraverts?)

    Anyway, I’m not buying. Sure, I’ve been a part of some meetings where I would have been better off alone, but I’ve also been a part of meetings where the brainstorming produced far better results than I could’ve come up with on my own.

  • Parhelion

    What Joe at #20 said.

    I’m always a bit bewildered by the notion of brainstorming at a meeting, but I’ve learned they can be a useful forum for promoting responsibility and communication. Nothing like having to discuss figures and see a decision made by your working group to assure your piece of the project actually gets done and the resulting choice is known to be (or not be) for a better reason than ‘I felt strongly drawn to this alternative’.

    This written, as an introvert, community-building meetings give me flashbacks to those horrible pep rallies and spirit-building assemblies in high school. Blargh. I’d much rather deal with birthday cake in the break room; at least that’s a little less plastic.

  • I hate meetings with a passion, but I’ve also been in jobs that desperately needed meetings, where one intern’s random choices calcified into SOPs and then everyone gets grumpy when you ask whether printing out a sticker and sticking it on is really the best way to put text on an index card or whether “#’s” is actually a real grammatical construction.

  • amylynn1022

    Might I propose a truce in the meeting- and group-work-wars?

    I have decided that group work, like running meetings and arithmetic, is a skill and should be taught as such. (It would certainly be a more useful skill to teach that “standardized test taking”.) I think that part of that training would be understanding your own best group-work or meeting style and learning how to communicate that to the rest of the group. And for that matter, paying attention how the rest of the group works.

    I think at least part of the problem with the group work we had to do in school was that no one really teaches students how to do group-work. They just kind of throw students together (or let them group up) and assume something brilliant was going to happen. Then when the A-student complaints that the rest of the group is “freeloading” or the introvert says they can’t get a word in edgewise, they either get blown off by the teacher or the teacher says something wishy-washy to the rest of the group about teamwork and taking turns. (And yes, I am an introvert and I was an A-student for most of my school career.)

    The same problem extends to corporate meetings–we assume that because you have reached a certain point in management that you know how to run them (and when!) And yet, while there seems to be no shortage of literature on how to run meetings (a lot of it gimmicky–have meetings standing up! silly party games!), I haven’t experienced a lot of training in the corporate world on how and when to run meetings. I have seen a lot of it in the non-profit and church worlds–maybe because those organizations know that nothing will make volunteers flee quicker that rambling, unproductive and unnecessary meetings.