It’s often the thing need­ed most but, giv­en how busy we are, it’s the last thing we give time to: eval­u­at­ing how our time and ener­gies are being used. Are we work­ing on the right stuff? In the right way? Do we have the right peo­ple in the room? What is our real sta­tus? Our real, human sta­tus? What are we pos­si­bly in denial about? What’s become undiscussable? 

Meta-time is about look­ing at our­selves, our team or com­pa­ny from a high­er per­spec­tive. In many places, unfor­tu­nate­ly such ques­tions do not get asked and this seems to be based on the belief that we are too busy to ask them. They only get in the way of get­ting our work done. Who can han­dle anoth­er meet­ing? they say. Big sighs all around. Not me! An hour a month?! Too much! Way too much!

In some orga­ni­za­tions, there’s so lit­tle regard or place giv­en to meta-time that peo­ple have for­got­ten how to do it, won­der if it has any val­ue at all. If we report on where we are against a goal, that’s enough — any­thing else that calls atten­tion to where we actu­al­ly are with regard to the goal (such as whether we actu­al­ly believe in it) sim­ply slows us down, calls up too much expo­sure to crit­i­cism, too much ques­tion­ing. So we say — as a defen­sive rou­tine that soon becomes tak­en for grant­ed and uncon­scious — that reflec­tion is not doing and if doing is not being done then noth­ing of val­ue is hap­pen­ing. Hence, let’s not do that meta thing ever again.

Let me clar­i­fy that meta-time is not just a con­ver­sa­tion to jus­ti­fy what’s being accom­plished, set goals or com­plain about what’s not occur­ring. And it’s not some use­less retreat with faux team build­ing exer­cis­es that every­one’s going to for­get as soon as they walk out the door or with inter­per­son­al fight­ing that no one will ever for­get. “Meta” means step­ping back to give full atten­tion to what we are “in,” not just mind­less­ly con­tin­u­ing in it. So it’s not just what goals we set, it’s how we go about set­ting goals; not just that we meet to talk but how our meet­ings are going and how we tru­ly talk to each oth­er; not just think­ing about a prob­lem but how we go about doing our thinking. 

That sounds threat­en­ing to me,” a man­ag­er said to me once, “and we’ve real­ly nev­er, ever done that kind of thing here.” What they seemed to have instead, at least in my opin­ion as a con­sul­tant, was a strong cul­ture of com­pli­ance-based project man­age­ment with a rigid set of rules about how things were to hap­pen in what order and with what result. They had a lot of hid­den prob­lems, but any­thing else than com­pli­ance with the sys­tem brought forth self-right­eous indig­na­tion from a rather ter­ri­fy­ing exec­u­tive vice-pres­i­dent who con­sis­tent­ly claimed that peo­ple were not work­ing hard enough or respon­si­bly enough — they were not enough like him.

I’d been asked to do a pre­sen­ta­tion at this com­pa­ny and those around the vice pres­i­dent were fine with hav­ing me talk about meta-time to deal with uncom­fort­able, “undis­cuss­able” top­ics. But he, to the con­trary, want­ed to care­ful­ly review and cor­rect my deck for me — an extreme­ly rare and over-con­trol­ling thing. I was­n’t sur­prised when I got a call can­cel­ing out my pre­sen­ta­tion. “He had some prob­lems with your con­tent,” I was told. “He said it was just too far off and he did­n’t have time to cor­rect it all or talk about it fur­ther.” I was more than hap­py to with­draw my ser­vices and take what com­pen­sa­tion I was due.

Meta-time can be threat­en­ing pre­cise­ly because it calls into ques­tion assump­tions and beliefs and can high­light the hid­den (or obvi­ous) prob­lems that are the true imped­i­ments to both sat­is­fac­tion and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. But it real­ly does­n’t have to be threat­en­ing. It just needs a con­tain­er strong enough to enable peo­ple to talk about how they tru­ly feel about what’s hap­pen­ing, what’s actu­al­ly going on, what enables accom­plish­ment and does­n’t enable it and then be will­ing to bridge into mean­ing­ful improve­ments in how they work togeth­er. What gets in the way is the fear of per­son­al attack — from oth­ers or from inside our­selves or both. In fact, it’s com­mon that the very first aspect of meta-time is exact­ly deal­ing with such fears and replac­ing them with their oppo­site, which is agree­ing upon the need for shared per­son­al sup­port. This is true for every­body, peo­ple with and with­out the stature of a high-rank­ing title.

I want to also clar­i­fy that meta-time is not nec­es­sar­i­ly the same as “me time,” anoth­er catch-phrase that comes up in my work occa­sion­al­ly. In fact, me time is some­times the exact oppo­site of meta-time, if it means, “I would like you all to leave me alone for extend­ed peri­ods so I can get my work done.” The cry for more me time and the con­ces­sions used to try to give it can be a turn down the wrong path. Not always, cer­tain­ly, but some­times it might help more to back up and look at how come there’s not enough time for peo­ple to com­plete their work and what that’s say­ing about the orga­ni­za­tion and its lead­er­ship. It can be the tip of an iceberg.


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