Women Meet, Men Re-org, 1-7
Imperfect solutions to coordination problems
On the topic of meetings, Tyler Cowen writes,
Often the purpose of a meeting is to flex muscles and show a demonstration of power/support for a person or idea. That may or may not be necessary, but it is boring too.
He lists other problems with meetings. I note that the main dimension on which he evaluates meetings is interesting/boring. I think that in business most people would evaluate them on the dimension of productive/time-wasting. Having recently read Randall Collins, I would suggest that the right dimension would be Emotional Energy. A good meeting will generate EE, and a bad meeting will diminish EE.
Why are there meetings within businesses and other organizations? One important purpose is to minimize the problem of people working at cross-purposes. When one part of the organization undertakes activities that hamper another part, it is demoralizing. You can mitigate this with better communication.
I learned about meetings at Freddie Mac. I started working there late in 1986, when it had only recently increased in size over the Dunbar number. In a sub-Dunbar organization, co-ordination takes place informally, requiring neither meetings nor a formal org chart. In a super-Dunbar organization, you need formal communication mechanisms.
Very shortly after I joined, an executive had us trained in how to have productive meetings. That sort of training has high leverage, because people spend a lot of time in meetings. I won’t go over everything I learned. But I will say that if you have a meeting where the organizational leader walks through a Powerpoint deck, you’re doing it wrong.
Two imperfect ways to address coordination problems in large organizations are meetings and re-organizations. The thinking behind calling a meeting is that you can get people to share information with one another. The thinking behind doing a re-organization is that you divide responsibilities in ways that minimize potential conflicts. You try to create departments within which people need to share information, while minimizing the need to share information across departments.
I observed that men tended to put more faith in re-orgs, while women tended to put more faith in meetings. Women were cynical about re-orgs (as one woman put it, “When you don’t know what to do, re-org”). Men were cynical about meetings, complaining that they took time away from getting things done.
I became cynical about both. Sure, some organization structures are better than others. But trying to eliminate the need for cross-departmental communication by changing the org chart is futile. To the extent that a re-org accomplishes something, it is usually because the executives who gain power are better than the executives who get shoved aside. The new structure itself solves some communication problems but ends up creating others.
If you have a project that requires people in different departments to coordinate, then meetings at regular intervals can help build team spirit. People have to want to work with one another if the project is going to get anywhere. You want the team to have a sense of forward motion and to see progress in getting problems resolved. You want to foster high Emotional Energy.
But too often what you see at a meeting is the project manager interacting with each participant one at a time while the other participants tune out. It is like making every participant sit through each other participant’s one-on-one with the manager. That approach to meetings drains away Emotional Energy.
When I hear about Amazon’s “two-pizza teams” approach to management, it sounds like a system designed to minimize cross-departmental meetings. Maybe to male engineers this sounds like utopia. But I suspect that it tends to work less well for women. And I doubt that the system will persist.
For ordinary meetings, and in general / on average, men value the explicitly impersonal, while women value the unmentionably personal.
Men like to walk away from a meeting with an answer to the questions, "What did I learn? What was decided? What issue was fixed or avoided?" Women don't mind not having answers, not because there aren't any, but because they are the kind of social factors that are necessarily subliminal.
You can't just come out and say, "this meeting is for human social psychological maintenance, it isn't to improve coordination, to share info that isn't common knowledge, to solve problems, make decisions, or change anything, but to give people some pseudo "face time" with the boss to make them feel a little more special and important than they really are, to vent, complain, whine, and let off steam, to 'feel heard', to jockey for friendship level position in the clique and gossip to help build and strengthen bonds, and, most importantly, so that when things happen later, the boss can CYA by saying, "why didn't you bring that up at the meeting when you had the opportunity?"
For men, time is a key resource which it is rude to waste. If there's something that doesn't involve everyone, it is respectful to say "let's take that offline". For women, the 'Seinfeld Meeting' that is about nothing, only seems to be a total waste to the guys, while the women log off with the subconscious feeling that it was time well spent. A guy that says "this was a total waste of time", "just doesn't get it".
One tension I've seen come up repeatedly is that most men get that personal, social-bond benefit from impersonal-style, minimalist meetings, but not from the personal-style ones, and vice versa for women. These innate incompatibilities cannot be reconciled, they are just another cost of working together.
The "two pizza" approach is really about pushing most decisions down to the leaf nodes. Some decisions need directors and VPs but in most cases that slows things down. Especially in software where it is easy to change your mind and dump what you did for the last two weeks and start over.