Tag: Paul English

The Beauty of Small Meetings

Good day, team.

This week’s challenge comes from an interview I read in The New York Times business section with Paul English, the co-founder and chief technology officer at Kayak. Conducted by Adam Bryant, the interview, titled “Ten People in a Meeting Is About Seven Too Many,” reveals why English believes that any more than three people in a meeting actually stifles creativity rather than enhances it.

Here are a couple excerpts from the interview that stood out to me:

“[At Kayak,] we’re known for having very small meetings, usually three people. There’s a little clicker for counting people that hangs on the main conference room door. The reason it’s there is to send a message to people that I care about this issue. If there’s a bunch of people in the room, I’ll stick my head in and say, “It takes 10 of you to decide this? There aren’t three of you smart enough to do this?

“I just hate design by consensus. No innovation happens with 10 people in a room. It’s very easy to be a critic and say why something won’t work. I don’t want that because new ideas are like these little precious things that can die very easily. Two or three people will nurture them and make them stronger, give them a chance to see life.”

Reading the interview made me think of the times I’ve worked on teams that came up with great ideas which eventually turned into a product or innovation. I can count on one hand the number of times this happened, and when it did, it was always a small team of people. We often felt like we had to keep our little project a secret — we referred to it as “skunk works” because we knew if too many people found out about it, they would tell us to stop working on it and do our regular jobs. I recall working for a high-tech startup that had grown from 12 people to 1,200 in four years. Once it got to more than 50 people, suddenly meetings became laborious. It took much longer to hear everyone’s opinions on projects, and a lot of the discussions didn’t lead to any result. It seemed to me that people went from being creative and focused to argumentative and confused. Everyone talked about the need for people to be more cooperative, but the more people who were added, the less cooperation occurred.

I’ve had an opportunity to work with many software engineers over the years, and I’m always curious about what type of environment they feel fosters creativity and innovation. When I was recruiting, I would ask them what kind of team atmosphere they enjoyed working in. Without fail, they would always tell me that smaller, more flexible teams were their favorites. They wanted to work in an environment where others encouraged them to experiment and test their ideas. One engineer told me, “I’m a geek, for sure, and my idea of the best place to work is a place where geeks are encouraged to be as geeky as possible. That is, take your creative ideas and see if you can make them work to enhance our product or design. Don’t get bogged down by having to follow processes or procedures — be hyperproductive and don’t be afraid to try things.”

In The New York Times interview, English went on to say the following:

“We’re a bit reckless in our decision-making — not with the business, but the point is that we try things. We give even junior people scary amounts of power to come up with ideas and implement them. We had an intern last summer who, on his very first day at Kayak, came up with an idea, wrote the code and released it. It may or may not have been successful, but it almost doesn’t matter, because it showed that we value speed, and we value testing ideas, not talking about them.

“It’s all about fast iteration. When you push down decisions and you don’t require people to write up plans and do designs by consensus, enormous amounts of work disappear. We cut out all the middle layers and let the designers talk to the customers. Otherwise, something gets lost in the translation with a lot of layers.”

I believe that different meetings serve various purposes. I agree with English when it comes to design and the exchange of creative ideas — smaller teams get more done. However, if you’re holding a meeting to deliver information about your company or about an issue that effects larger teams, then a larger meeting makes more sense. Know what your intention is for a meeting. Is it to get a better design or is it to communicate information out to a larger audience? Maybe you need to include all the relevant stakeholders, even those who are not necessarily touched directly by the project. Making a clear distinction about what you’re trying to achieve in a meeting — or setting an intention — helps to determine who needs to attend.

All too often I hear people say, “I can’t believe they didn’t include me in that meeting!” However, upon further reflection, people often realize that they actually didn’t need to be there and that an e-mail update about the meeting is enough. Understanding what role you play on a team and the importance of your participation is the sign of a mature person who doesn’t think they’re so special that they need to be in all the meetings.

This week, see if your meetings are actually producing the kinds of results that will move your company forward. Are people spending way too much time talking about things and ideas but never actually delivering anything? What about your most creative and innovative people? Are you encouraging them to test their ideas? Or are you extinguishing their creativity by telling them all the reasons their ideas won’t work? Are you piling on too many processes that weigh down their desire and commitment to create something new and exciting? Are your intentions and expectations about meetings clear to everyone? If you want people to come together to exchange ideas, state that up front. Also, don’t add people into a meeting just because you’re afraid they’ll feel slighted if you leave them out. Do they actually have a significant role to play in the outcome of the meeting?

What about the amount of time it takes your company to go from an initial design concept to the actual delivery of a product? Does it take weeks, months or maybe even years? Do you see your competitors whizzing by you at lightening speed as you sit in meetings talking about how to get things done?

Try encouraging your most creative people to meet up with just a few others who can help put their ideas into action. Encourage more agile ways for people to work together in smaller pods of people that can stay focused on a few things that excite them. If you have a larger team of managers who normally all meet together, try splitting them up into groups of three or four. Give them a subject to talk about or a problem to solve and then bring the groups back together to share their ideas. Run a contest between groups or encourage managers to ask their people to take a day to focus exclusively on their innovative ideas.

Think of ways your meetings can be a more positive experience for team members. Large, lengthy meetings are not fun, and they are often boring. People don’t tap into their creative spirits when they are bored and not having fun. No one wants their job to be a drag, and subjecting people to hour after hour of meetings only encourages them to stop paying attention. This week, try coming up with creative ways for your people to meet and exchange ideas. It may actually increase your company’s productivity, your people’s innovation and everyone’s ability to have more fun!

Have a good week!


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