Class bells

When I attended General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) in the early 1970s, it didn’t have the free-wheeling feel of many college campuses. It was part of General Motors back then, and shared a lot of the traditional General Motors conservatism.

One thing that really irritated me at the time was the class bells. It made me feel like I was still in High School, especially when my friends at other colleges told me that they were just expected to show up to class on time, without a bell prodding them.

But with a few more decades under my belt, I’m beginning to think the bells were not such a bad idea. Today we have lots of meetings, and most of them start and end on the hour. A few enlightened teams start their meetings at five after the hour, and end at five before hour, but not very many. And meetings frequently run over their time box, because the participants figure since it is only 10 or 15 minutes, it is easier to keep going than to schedule another meeting. But those 10 or 15 minutes don’t belong to them. If participants are due in another meeting, all the people in the subsequent meeting need to wait for them.

That is where the class bells would help. If we had a bell (or better, a soft tone over the public address system) at five minutes after the hour and five minutes before the hour (perhaps the half-hour, too), it would remind people that they have to end their meeting so that people can get to their next one.

Actually, it would not be all that difficult to tie the room reservation system in with one of the desktop alerting systems, like SnapComms, NetSupport Notify, or Alertus, so when the meeting has exceeded its timebox, a message scrolls across projector screen saying “This meeting has ended. Please clear the room for the next meeting.” This would avoid disturbing people who were not in the meeting.

Some would argue that trying to solve a behavioral problem with technology is focusing on the wrong thing. However, my experience has been that it is sometimes the only way. If you tell people to end their meetings on time, many will feign agreement, but continue to overrun their allotted timeboxes.  If you use technology to make it inconvenient for them to exceed their timebox, they are then in the position of either putting up with the inconvenience, starting to behave right, or complaining about the end-of-meeting messages and explaining why their meeting is so important that it should be allowed to impinge upon other people’s meetings.

It all depends on the company culture. In some companies, all you need to do is to get mid-level management to proclaim that meetings should not overrun their timeboxes, and set a good example by ending their own meetings when the timebox expires. In other companies, particularly mature companies where people are set in their ways, you may need to use technology to influence them.

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