Monday, January 15, 2007

Tragedy of the calendars, pastures, and bunnies

The "Tragedy of the Commons" is well explained in the article of the same name, by Garret Hardin (1968). In essence, the members of a collective sharing a common resource are locked in a system where each member must attempt to grab as much of that common resource ahead of the others. Eventually, the resource is depleted and all members left in a dire situation.

Mr. Hardin resorted to a mildly interesting example of pastures and cattle; maybe because he did not have access to the multimedia resources of late to humorously explain the concept as well as the folks who created the "Tragedy of the Bunnies" website. For the real adults, I recommend the article; for the rest of us, I recommend the far more entertaining games available in the website :-)

I spent a few more minutes thinking about a scarce common resource that is afflicted by the same phenomenon: our calendars.

With so much emphasis on team work and a multitude of tasks that require collaboration across different teams, there is a risk of a "Tragedy of the Calendars". In this version of the tragedy of the commons, coworkers attempt to request as much time from other people in order to get their projects going, up to the point where no one has more time to put work into their respective projects.

As the scheduling game plays out, one can only hope that natural selection will starve the least important projects out of precious time from the other tenants of the corporate kingdom. In my experience, the natural selection actually favors the more assertive project leaders.

I am not ready to accept the theory that the more assertive people lead the most important projects, thus I have grown fond of the second version of the game with the little bunnies. In the second version, each tenant is assigned his own share of the commons, thus encouraging the participants to preserve the resources for future use.

Meeting Caps

Here is an analogous novel idea: establish a cap on the meetings that can be called for a given project. That cap could be on the number of meetings or on the number of combined man-hours involved in the meetings. Establishing the quotas may be difficult in the absence of reference numbers, but a couple of measurement pilots on two or three successful projects could verify the feasibility of the idea and eventually produce the numbers.

The natural reaction to the idea is to worry about lessened communication and collaboration across teams, but a meeting cap would make project leads think harder about how to make the most of the precious time resource. I would anticipate more detailed meeting agendas and more emphasis on the moderator role to get the best out of the participants' presence.

I have not thought through all the consequences of meeting caps, but I think the idea may actually increase productivity and reduce the stress related to chained meetings. It would also take away the fun from the quintessential "Let's Hold a Meeting" joke.


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