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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.