There is a well-known principle in the world of project management that is highly applicable to day-to-day productivity both on the shop floor and in offices everywhere. The principle is called Parkinson’s Law, and it reads like this:
“Work expands to fill the time available.”
For example, for most people, a project that is due at the end of the month will take a month to do, regardless whether there is a month’s worth of work inside that project to be done. Even if the work requirement is just two hours, the fact that it is not due yet means it will likely get delayed until things get critical. This highlights a universal attribute of human beings– that we are attracted to symbolism, like that of a deadline, more than we are to efficient management of a process.
Parkinson’s Law has long been a part of our meeting-focused culture, making them anything but efficient.
The most common complaints about meetings include:
- they take too long
- the wrong people are invited
- they start late
- they do not have a formal agenda
- they do not have clearly-defined outcomes
In short, meetings quickly grow to become a significant waste of time and resources due to a human disconnect between time and productivity.
The Two-Pizza Rule
Consequently, a better symbol was required to help people plan and implement successful meetings, and this need was answered by none other than the founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos. As recounted in The Guardian, “In the early days of Amazon, Jeff Bezos instituted a rule: every internal team should be small enough that it can be fed with two pizzas. The goal…focused on two aims: efficiency and scalability…A smaller team spends less time managing timetables and keeping people up to date, and more time doing what needs to be done.
This is a concept that has caught on well, given its immediate practicality.
- First, it helps hold people more accountable in terms of how many people to invite (and not invite) to a meeting, based on the anticipated per-person consumption of an easily measured food.
- Secondly, it appeals to a different set of priorities for the human being – primarily the universal appeal of food, especially pizza, and the prospect of social eating as an event.
The two-pizza rule has worked well both in the boardroom and in development spaces, such as software design, but it is not the only meeting innovation to spring from Amazon.
The Silent Meeting
Another innovative, yet decidedly low-tech approach to effective meetings is the silent or study hall approach used by teams at Amazon, LinkedIn, and Square among others. The first 30 minutes of every meeting are spent in silence as every attendee takes the time to read a six-page report. This technique seeks to eliminate the problem of attendees arriving unprepared and ensuring that everyone is receiving the same message. As unconventional as this may seem, it solves a universal problem based on a permanent short supply of time, by making the time for preparation a part of the meeting itself.
As described by journalist Marilyn Haigh, “experts say this approach can lead to better meeting preparation and more succinct discussions. This tactic can even give people who are typically talked over a unique chance to be heard — including women, people of color, remote workers and introverts.”
Managing people and productivity has always been a challenge and will continue to be so. As technology allows for increased connectivity, it has resulted in an explosion of tasks and priorities that the human brain is not equipped to handle.
Chris De Brusk, writing in the MIT-Sloan Management Review, identifies several ways to regain true communication alongside productivity. In addition to the two-pizza rule, he suggests:
- Keeping teams small, and resisting the urge to include everyone
- Adopting one-step decisions, and avoiding sending questions back to larger stakeholder groups where they will get lost or changed
- Focusing on building trust between team members
- Being less formal during meetings, including cutting down on over-large PowerPoint presentations
- Taking advantage of collaboration tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams, whose informality speeds up the productivity process and reduces the need for email and even project management tools to some extent.
In other posts in this series, I have identified challenges people have encountered when attempting to introduce best practices into an organization, especially techniques like lean, or management excellence . Although there is no one single solution, the ideal approach is to always consider the strengths and weaknesses of people and place them in higher priority than those of the process.