The ideal number for a meeting is …

Key words: brainstorming creativity productivity strategy meetings number


ABOUT THIS SERIES OF CARDS: “Men follow their sentiments and their self-interest, but it pleases them to imagine that they follow reason. And so they look for, and always find, some theory which, a posteriori, makes their actions appear to be logical.” — Vilfredo Pareto

Confirmation bias

Key words: bias, confirmation bias, cognition, tunnel vision, echo chamber


ABOUT THIS SERIES OF CARDS: “Men follow their sentiments and their self-interest, but it pleases them to imagine that they follow reason. And so they look for, and always find, some theory which, a posteriori, makes their actions appear to be logical.” — Vilfredo Pareto

This tyrant now rules the world: our screens

Key words: screen, device, attention, mind, productivity, entertainment, creativity


A restaurant, a waiting lounge, a family dinner: chances are that most people in front of you will be looking at a screen. Mobile phone, tablet, laptop: they grab our attention and hold it in a vice-like grip. The “Feeds”, and the algorithms that drive them, have taken over our minds and our ability to think independently.

In an article in the blog, Infinite Play, Nat Eliason writes about “The locus of entertainment.” He says that avoiding contact with other people and burying ourselves in our own sources of pleasure is not new. We read books and newspapers while traveling in a train or plane. But, something has changed in a major fashion. The locus of entertainment, according to Eliason, has been slowly wrested from within our own choosing and dropped onto our all-pervasive screens.

Here are the take home messages that I got from this article.

➡️ Backstory: “Screenworld”. We have given up the power to chose for the false luxury of endless choices. Eliason calls this the “screen world.”

➡️ Main idea: “Entertainment muscle atrophy.” Entertainment, until the advent of the Internet, was something we generated. Writing, music, painting, and the performing arts are some common examples.

Today, entertainment has become something that is generated for us. A complex web of data, obtained from our browsing, is mined with powerful tools. Algorithms control the list of choices on offer. Manipulations are made that are well beyond our cognitive capacity. Free will no longer exists.

We surrender totally. As couch potatoes, our “entertainment muscles atrophy.”

🔴 Eliason warns us that it is a very short, slippery road to “depression, addiction, and asociality.”

➡️ Call to action: Take back control.

There is a solution, Eliason adds, but it is not an easy one. You have to become the master of your devices; take charge of creating your own entertainment. You have to use these tools to build up your internally generated sources of entertainment. The apps and software available today are wide-ranging and powerful. We have never had so much power for creativity and innovation.

In a single sentence, Eliason’s recommendation would be: Switch from being a consumer to being a creator.

Read the article.

Pay it forward – be a mentor

Photo credit: Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

The Buddha constantly emphasised that the attainment of enlightenment was not the end of the spiritual journey but merely the beginning of a duty: the unremitting responsibility for providing counselling and solace to those in need of help for their prevailing predicaments (Dukkha).

In a professional context, and in a word: mentorship.

Paying it forward: Traditionally, we look at paying back as the way of acknowledging help and support given to us in times of need. There is a more effective alternative: paying it forward. In gratitude for what was received, we should consider helping others in need. The downstream benefits and multiplier effects are much greater. That’s what mentorship is all about.

“. . . a great mentor can provide a path to finding your own true answers.” Tina Turner quoting Miles Davis, the jazz legend.

Coaching differs significantly from mentoring. It is often short-term, well-structured, and designed to achieve specific, tangible outcomes. A coach is the least personal relationship option.

“Searching for a mentor is similar to searching for a spouse: you two need to share common values, concerns, experiences, communication style, and, of course, have time to invest into meaningful conversations with one another.” — [Anna Szabo, Turn Your Dreams And Wants Into Achievable SMART Goals!

An ideal mentor should be:

  • Accessible: there when needed.
  • Experienced: been there, done that.
  • Well connected: knows someone . . . who knows someone.
  • Tough but empathic: iron hand under a velvet glove.
  • Enthusiastic: yes, you can do it!
  • Charismatic: wow factor.

The scaffolding of good mentorship

  • Recognise what you desire from the relationship. It’s crucial to keep in mind that mentorship is a relationship. Instead of jumping right into business, the most effective mentorships are those in which the mentor and mentee take the time to get to know each other and grasp each other’s viewpoints.
  • Set expectations together from the start. How long do you want the mentoring to continue (but you may always extend it if you both believe it’s beneficial). Define critical objectives for your mentee to attain. Work together to build a general idea of how your meetings should go. Make certain they are focussed on a few essential problems.
  • Take a genuine interest in your mentee as a person. The cornerstone of good mentoring is empathic listening.
  • Develop a sense of trust. Trust takes years to develop, yet it can be shattered in an instant.
  • Don’t make assumptions about the mentee – inquire. Age, gender, colour, physical habitus, and appearance are seldom reliable indicators of what lurks underneath. Find out what makes the mentee tick by talking to them.
  • Share your experiences. It can provide you with a unique perspective on the challenges your mentee may be dealing with. You could have had a similar situation, so now is a wonderful opportunity to share what you went through and how you dealt with it.
  • Look for resources to help your mentee. This is where mentors can make a real difference. You’ll have insider knowledge of the area and access to resources that your mentee wouldn’t be able to obtain on their own. Link them to these resources.
  • Be aware of your limits. When your bandwidth is limited, admit your lack of expertise and recommend other sources or persons.

Anyone can be a mentor: The image of a mentor is often one of leaders, who have been sharpening their skills for years and are experts at what they do. However, that’s not quite true; you can be a mentor if you are enthusiastic and willing to share your experience with others!

Virtual mentorship

Post-COVID, remote work is now firmly entrenched as an alternative for providing professional services. Many individuals believe that physical closeness is necessary in developmental connections such as mentorship. This is wrong. However, mentorship is characterised more by the results achieved than by the medium by which it is carried out.

  • Plus: Virtual mentoring may be more egalitarian since visible status signals signifying organisational position and physical stature are reduced to a voice and a screen of equal size in video-based talks.
  • Plus: The limitations of shared space and location are also removed with virtual mentoring. Mentor/mentee schedules and locales are more flexible with online choices.
  • Minus: Because the whole spectrum of nonverbal signs and vocal subtlety may be lacking, it may take more work to create trust and rapport in the relationship. Virtual mentoring, like many other online partnerships, may suffer from email overload and screen weariness.

“I knew from my own life experience that when someone shows genuine interest in your learning and development, even if only for ten minutes in a busy day, it matters.” — Michelle Obama, Becoming


 

In memoriam: Side Kick and the days of yore

Some time ago, I read about and started using a wiki with an intriguing name: “TiddlyWiki”. It’s a wiki and less; a wiki that went on a diet, shed large amounts of flab and emerged leaner and meaner. It’s a single html file that requires nothing special, no server, no geekspeak, works through your browser and does everything a wiki should. Jeremy Ruston (may his tribe increase), its creator, describes his brainchild as a non-linear, personal notebook. It has the austere simplicity of a Google opening page and, likewise, packs a punch. It grows on you and continues to amaze with its elegance. Explore it at TiddlyWiki.com.

This essay is not about TiddlyWiki but something that set me thinking in its wake. My first personal computer was bought after a lot of quick talking to my wife about how it would save my soul: an Apple II plus. The year was 1980. The box was all you got for a thousand plus dollars. I bought a small car the year before for about four thousand, so that should put things in perspective. No monitor; you hooked up to your TV set. No disk drive; if you wanted a 180 KB floppy drive, that would add another fifty per cent to the cost. Forget printers; a thermal-paper-based one would chalk up another 300 dollars. The software came on music cassettes that you played on your cassette player and plugged into the computer. A whopping 48 KB (K, not M, not G) of memory. I loved it.

This memoir is not about Apple II pluses either. Then came my first “PC” — loaded with 256 KB (yes, K, not M) of memory and a floppy drive that used 360 K floppies (yes, K again, not M). The machine roared along if you bought the double drive version. This way, you didn’t have to take out the floppy with the programme software and put in a data disk every time you needed to save files. The two-drive system allowed the programme and the data to cohabit the same box. If you were wealthy, you could ask for a 10 MB (yes M, not G) hard disk that had the heft of a Tom Clancy novel and crashed at least once a week. Reformatting hard disks and reinstalling operating systems and software was all in a day’s work.

This memoir is not about the travails of working in a frontier land where men were men and so on. No doubt, like the cowboys of yore who carried everything they owned and needed in their saddlebags, not their pick-up trucks and SUVs, we travelled light. 

This brings me to what this memoir is all about; software that made you gasp, made you feel like the guy on a horse seeing Marlboro country for the first time. Appropriate to the current metaphor, it was called “Side Kick”. I believe that there was a space between the words; this was in the prehistoric days before wiki words and camel case. Somehow, after installing and working with hundreds of packages, I cannot recall any that gave me the high that Side Kick did. Remember, we were in an age where windows were washed regularly, not minimized. To run a second programme, you had to shut down the one you were with and fire up the one to follow. Multitasking meant talking with the phone cradled between your head and shoulder, trying not to get choked by the cord while frying eggs. In this background, Side Kick was a stunner. The entire package was about 50 K in size (K, not M). It was memory-resident, which meant that it could perform the miracle of staying in the background while another programme was running; a “Ctrl-esc” combo would wake it up. It popped up on top of your open programme in a resizable window and did not take up the entire screen. It could do several things at once: a calendar, a word processor, and a small database, amongst other things. You could save files from it. You could copy, cut and paste — all for 50K.

Okay, “So what?” the generation X-ers are saying as they slaughter a horde of slime-eating mutants on their Play Station. Like stout Cortez on the peak of Galen, you just had to be there to get the feeling. It’s like standing in line for hours to see the first Star Wars episode in the seventies. All film-making technology that has followed does not do the same for me that my first exposure to R2D2 and the Force did. I can’t describe it, but those of you who were there would know what I am talking about. 

Well, Side Kick died, and I don’t think anyone even cared. I would mourn, now and then and like in life, the now and then became further and further apart.  And then, TiddlyWiki! In the words of my contemporary, Barry Manilow, it was time to get the feeling again. TW weighs in at about 200K, minuscule in today’s world of software bloat that considers 50 MB as slim and svelte. TW is Side Kick born again, as Zen-like in its stark simplicity and majesty, which is the real reason for this memoir.

PS: If you mourn Side Kick, you will also remember PFS:File, in my opinion, the best flat-file database manager ever. Using the current version of Access is like trying to roll a fallen elephant with a toothpick.

Making meetings matter: do it like Bezos

“It’s a truth universally acknowledged” that employees resent meetings and try their best to avoid attending them. Surveys show that as much as fifty percent of people in an organisation believe that they are a waste of time. Executives can spend up to 20 hours a week on them. They interfere with productivity; time spent could have been put to better use. But, no enterprise, big or small, runs without periodic meetings.

We Don’t Like Meetings and We Don’t Want Them Gone

Still, when asked if meetings should be abolished altogether, the same number of people reply that it would not be a good move. They feel that meetings are essential for maintaining a democratic spirit. Ideas should be aired, discussed and modified by groups of people; otherwise, the management style will be seen as autocratic.

Two factors are at work.

1. Parkinson’s Law of Triviality — Meetings have agendas. Items on an agenda vary in importance from critical to trivial. Professor Northcote Parkinson, him of the much quoted, eponymous law, also described a constant characteristic of meetings: The Law of Triviality.

There is an inverse relationship between the importance of an item and time spent on discussing it. Plans for a large investment on a major expansion will get passed over in a few minutes whereas a half hour or more will be spent on arguing about a new coffee dispenser in the lounge. It’s easier to talk about something that you are familiar with than something beyond your knowledge limits. (This law is also called “ the bike-shed effect ” based on a popular anecdote.)

2. More People, Less Effective the Meeting: There is also an inverse relationship between the number of people attending and effectiveness of a meeting.

The optimal number is 5. As the number increases, meetings become more and more unproductive. At 20, chaos reigns; from here on — 20 or a 100 — the number in the room doesn’t make a difference. It’s imperative that only those who can contribute effectively to the discussion be invited to take part. This is one element that is seldom carefully addressed.

The challenge, therefore, is to structure meetings to make them matter.

First, and For Ever, No “PowerPoints”

Jeff hates PowerPoint (or any other flavor) of presentation app. He believes that “ Powerpoint-style presentations somehow give permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas.

That’s an earth-shaking diktat for all of us who automatically reach out for these tools when making a presentation.

Well Structured Narrative

The man says, in a much-quoted memo that he sent out: “Well structured, narrative text is what we’re after rather than just text. If someone builds a list of bullet points in Word, that would be just as bad as Powerpoint. The reason writing a good 4 page memo is harder than “writing” a 20 page Powerpoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what, and how, things are related.”

The fundamental argument is not so much about the medium itself — Powerpoint or written document — as the need to think critically and clearly.

Here’s how it’s done

Step 1: Writing the Narrative

The person or group responsible for the meeting, spends a good amount of time producing a 4-6 page, tightly reasoned, carefully worded, written narrative. (More on how to do this in another post).

Step 2: All Those Needed for the Meeting Gather at an Appointed Time.

Step 3: Read the Narrative for 30 Minutes.

The document is NOT distributed ahead of time.

Everyone present now gets a copy of the document and spends 30 minutes in silent reading. They note down their observations, comments, opposition and so on, now.

Wouldn’t it be more efficient if the document were to be given in advance? No, says Bezos; “Just like high school kids, executives will bluff their way through the meeting, as if they’ve read the memo, … you’ve got to actually carve out the time for the memo to get read — and that’s what the first half hour of the meeting is for.”

Step 4: Discussion Begins Now.

The document is used as the anchor for all that follows. It’s easy to keep all members tightly focused on the task at hand with everyone being on the same level of knowledge about the agenda. The event acquires both magnitude and direction.


Meetings have been given a bad rap. Some of the reasons are valid. In order to extract maximum effectiveness, Jeff Bezos of Amazon uses an unique structure for all meetings in his organization. In summary, here’s how he does it.

  • Prepare a carefully-written, 4-6 page narrative about the topic for discussion.
  • Invite the smallest possible number of people for the meeting. Limit invitees to those who can make meaningful contributions.
  • Circulate the document at the start of the meeting and give everyone present half an a hour to carefully read and annotate the paper.
  • Tether discussion to the contents of this document.
  • Designate one person to be responsible for summing up the discussion and to provide an action-taken report.

The sole purpose of meetings is to create change, hopefully for the better. Like any tool, meetings are neither good nor bad in themselves. It’s how we use them that matters.

“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” ― Carl Gustav Jung


Dr Arjun Rajagopalan

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