Congestive Meeting Collapse – Scheduling Gridlock

I used to spend most of my day in meetings.  At one point, when I was managing a large team, I routinely had weeks where there were a total of 2 hours between 9 and 5 that I wasn’t in a meeting .. for the entire week.  Anything I needed to work on that didn’t involve other people had to happen early or late.  Such as answering the crushing quantities of email that stacked up while I was in meetings and actually paying attention.

Now that I’m in a startup, where I’m typically in a traditional “meeting” for a couple of hours a week total, it is amazing how much gets done.  When I touch base with people from my previous employer, the scheduling overhead can become darkly humorous.  Routinely somebody will ask to get together, and then schedule it for a month later.  That slot then gets stepped on by some other meeting, often more than once (and typically at the last minute). It’s common for it to take two to three months to set up a conversation with more senior folks (!).  Really?

I think there is an interesting analogy to the performance of networks.  When the amount of traffic reaches a certain fraction of a network’s capacity and the scheduling protocols are not optimal, the network achieves what is called congestive collapse.  It means that the network is in a stable state of low throughput.  Is your company permanently in “congestive meeting collapse”?

The Damage it Does

When everyone is so hyper-scheduled

  • There is no slack in the system.  If something important comes up, you have to step on an existing meeting to get everyone together.  When one meeting is moved, that causes a cascade of rescheduling among all the attendees, which moves other meetings they were in, and on outwards like ripples in the water.
  • Everyone is in meetings all the time, so they are frustrated, bored, and don’t have time to work on individual projects except outside normal hours.  Anything “optional” (like thinking deeply about the state of your world, the future, and what you need to do about it) gets squeezed out by something “practical” but often much less important.
  • A huge amount of time is wasted scheduling and rescheduling.
  • “Medium importance” decisions take forever.  Big ones get attention; the medium ones that require a number of key people to get together and resolve something, but aren’t a crisis, get rescheduled and rescheduled and take much longer than they should.  This gums everything up and makes the organization inefficient.

Why Does This Happen?

Clearly the problem is that there are too many meetings, but why is that?  There are some obvious kinds of inefficiency, such as:

  • The Serial 1:1 – Some meetings are a lazy way for a manager to talk to folks on their team.  Everyone else sits glumly listening, doing email and/or propping up their eyelids with toothpicks, as the manager talks in turn to each person.  Now and then something relevant to the whole team comes up, but mostly it is a series of 1:1’s with bystanders.  Regular team “status” meetings are often like this – ugh, don’t do it!
  • The Inefficient Mess – There is no clear agenda, things wander along without being well managed, and action items aren’t captured efficiently.  Something that could have been handled in 15 crisp minutes takes 90 minutes, and often bleeds over to another meeting because people weren’t clear about what they were and weren’t accountable for doing afterwards.  This is lampooned by John Cleese in a fun training video called “Meetings, Bloody Meetings”.

But annoying as they are, bad meetings like these are just one-off problems that can be fixed with some coaching.  The much more insidious villain, I’ve found, is too many stakeholders.

As organizations grow, and as more groups are needed to be successful, every important decision develops a long list of people who legitimately have a stake in how it is made.  For example, consider a major shift in the strategy of a particular product.  It affects the people who design the product, build the product, communicate with customers, sell the product, and support customers.  It might also involve legal issues, HR issues, and resetting the expectations of senior management.  In a matrixed world, even one stakeholder can drag in multiple people – sales organizations often have somebody who owns the worldwide quotas for a particular product, for a particular market segment (“enterprise customers”), and/or for a particular regional market (“Germany”).

Thus, two things tend to happen.  One is that many stakeholders get involved in the decision.  They participate in meetings to discuss it, commit to it, implement it, learn about it, and review progress on it.  They all try to get invited to the most important meetings, so they are “in the loop”.  As you scale up, this leads to madness.  The other result is that it is so hard to get things landed that only the most senior people in the organization have enough authority to drive key decisions.  So more and more things land in their lap, disempowering everyone else and slowing things down to a crawl because nobody can get the meeting scheduled with them(!).

Sometimes you can dodge the problem by keeping teams small – the so-called “two pizza team” approach.  But if you are successful, eventually things tend to get big.  And at scale, I think the only solution is to cleanly and aggressively delegate authority and to be absolutely hard-core about defining a minimal set of people who get to influence a decision before it is made.

Both of these are hard and involve risk.  Sometimes, the decision-maker will screw up.  Bad decisions will get made that could have been avoided by involving other teams or more senior people.

But the price of avoiding those mistakes is to live constantly waist deep in mud.  Everything you do, every decision you make, is a slow-motion struggle to make progress.  The cost may be less apparent, but in a world moving at lightning speed, can you afford to carry that kind of a burden?  As Teddy Roosevelt said, “in any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”

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