What’s wrong with meetings, and how to fix them

Al Pittampalli has just published a book, Read This Before Our Next Meeting, about how to make meetings better.

What’s wrong with meetings

In this post he compares meetings to a tragedy of the commons. The idea is that time is a shared resource and it is in the interest of each individual to abuse that resource by calling a meeting, even though it may not be in the best interest of the group.

A person who might get something agreed through six individual conversations each lasting 15 minutes will instead call an hour long meeting. The total time taken in the first situation is:

6 x 15 minute meetings for the meeting host, a total of 90 minutes, plus each of the six people he needs to talk to have 15 minutes of their time used, another 90 minutes. In total three hours of people’s time are used up to reach a solution in the situation where a full meeting isn’t called.

By calling an hour long meeting for themselves and the six other people a total of seven hours are taken up. But for the individual calling the meeting they only take an hour of their time instead of the 90 minutes in the first situation.

They are better off calling a meeting but everyone else is worse off.

Although Al Pittampalli has described this as a tragedy of the commons there is a subtle difference to the usual examples of a tragedy of the commons, such as over-fishing. In a true tragedy of the commons there is a shared resource that is depleted by one or more individuals taking too much of that resource from others and eventually the resource runs out.

In this case the resource isn’t truly shared, each person can control their own time and not allow it to be taken by someone else. At least in theory they can, in practice it can be much harder to protect your time from others, particularly if the other person is your boss.

How to fix the problem

Dealing with a boss who selfishly calls too many meetings and takes up everyone else’s time is a co-ordination problem like the Stag Hunt.

If everyone stands together to reject the meeting then they will force the boss to change their behavior. But this is a high risk strategy, if you are the only one that stands up to the boss while everyone else stays quiet then you risk damaging your career. The safe strategy is to keep quiet and put up with bad meetings.

The book talks a lot about changing the culture of meetings in a company. In game theory terms changing the culture is a way to make it easier for everyone stand up to the boss so that they are more likely to co-ordinate on the better solution rather than settling for the poor but safe option.

Today’s takeaway: Having a shared culture makes it easier for people to co-ordinate their behavior even when it might not be in their individual interest to do so.

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One Response to What’s wrong with meetings, and how to fix them

  1. Pingback: Are Meetings a Tragedy of the Commons? : Farnam Street

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