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

Parkinson’s Law of Triviality

Key words: Parkinson triviality law meetings time 


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

The Peter Principle

Key words: Peter principle, hierarchy, incompetence, bureaucracy, management


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

The sunk cost fallacy

Key words: sunk cost, fallacy, bias, loss, aversion behaviour


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.

The secret sauce for “Getting Things Done”: slow down

The claim, “I’m busy,” is flaunted as a badge of honour. But, are you getting things done? Is your health and personal relationships suffering from your busy-ness?

There is a better approach to success and productivity: “slow work.”

“Restore your attention or bring it to a new level by dramatically slowing down whatever you’re doing.” —  Sharon Salzberg, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation

  • Dismount the treadmill: We get stuck in the cycle of prioritising the urgent over the important. You have to step off and reverse the choices.
  • Single-tasking: Set aside time to focus on a single activity. If the job is complex, break it down into smaller, simpler chunks. It’s useful to work in 20- to 30-minute sessions with short breaks in between. If you are stuck, listen to music, take a short walk–break the rhythm.
  • Use the Pareto Principle (80-20 rule): 80% of our outcomes originate from 20% of our efforts. Invest time in understanding the activities that have the “greatest bang for the buck” and focus your energies on them. This will help you transition from a hustling attitude to a leisurely work philosophy.

Decision making has speed limits

In today’s world, much of our daily efforts involve decisions. If you are hoping to hasten your decision-making, forget it. You can’t ramp up the speed of your thoughts no matter what you do or how hard you try. Your thinking rate is fixed.

Some guidelines for good decision making

  1. Concentrate on what you really want. Ask yourself, “What do I intend to accomplish by addressing this choice?” Look at the answer from a 360 degree perspective.
  2. Don’t get caught up in little details. Leave them for later, when you are actually executing the task.
  3. To avoid decision-making under pressure, pre-commit to strategies that you have thought out ahead of time. 
  4. Seek the opinion of others. Obtain a few perspectives, preferably from those who have past knowledge of the subject.
  5. Be aware of your emotions. Don’t let anger and other negative feelings push you.
  6. Write down your ideas and options to help you clarify your thinking.

The quality of your judgments suffers when you are under pressure.

If you want to make better decisions, you need to do everything you can to reduce the pressure you’re under. You need to let your brain take all the time it needs to think through the problem at hand. You need to get out of a reactive mode, recognise when you need to pause, and spend more time looking at problems.

Make judgments while sitting down and examining the subject from several perspectives. You’ll still need to set aside time to do nothing but ponder.

The merits of slack time

Slack is the lubricant of change.

We are brainwashed by the belief that continuous activity equals efficiency. A lot of this perceived busyness is spent in the pursuit of trivial, unimportant tasks. In order to be effective, a certain amount of wiggle room is mandatory.


 

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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