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Are Meetings a Tragedy of the Commons?

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

In his post, Pittampalli argues that meetings are a tragedy of the commons:

Our traditional system of meetings is a true tragedy of the commons.

In a culture where anyone can call a meeting for any reason at any time, they will. The math is pretty simple.

Example: A manager needs advice for a decision he has to make. There are 8 people he wants to interact with for an hour each. That would take him 8 hours. But if he calls a meeting with 8 people it only takes up one hour of his time. Pretty good deal huh?

Maybe for the manager, but the aggregate cost of individuals acting in this self interested way is a system where the number of meetings held in an organization is unreasonable and unmanageable.

And what results is a debilitating culture of interruption. A culture where it’s rare to see a long stretch of open time available to people to do real work. Unfortunately great work, real art takes time.

Jason Friend from 37 signals gives a great analogy. Great work is like sleep, it progresses in stages, and the deepest sleep (the last stage) is the most valuable kind. But it takes much uninterrupted time to get there. Every interruption forces you to start over.

The rational individual who is motivated by self interest will call meetings at will. But that’s not you. In fact that’s not most people.

Pittampalli’s argument is that time is a shared resource and each person will abuse that to maximize their own efficiency (at the cost of others).

Another blog pointed out:

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.