Everyone seems happy with the proposition that fixed costs should be kept as low as possible in a volatile business environment. That way, you can respond quickly if and when the market moves in an unexpected direction. Everyone also seems happy with the proposition that in the services sector, compensation for human endeavour overshadows any other type of cost. Services are fundamentally people businesses. Many of the arguments that support outsourcing and/or offshoring rely on some of these propositions, at least in part. It is normal to augment the propositions with other arguments, usually to do with comparative advantage, with core competences, with a need for focus, with location, skill and wage arbitrage, and so on.
This post is not about any of those arguments, or about offshoring or outsourcing. You have many places you can go to for those arguments. What this post is about is the little bit that stays behind. The people and processes and skills that are not outsourced or offshored or anything like that.
What intrigues me is how we manage this little bit. This little bit that’s made up of people spending time alone and together.
How does these people interact? Via something called diaries and schedules and organisers and what-have-you. What tends to happen? We have some strange form of negotiation that takes place between all these diaries in order to bring people together. As a result of many such negotiations, the diaries and schedules get filled up, and people then go about their Assembly Line lives. Move from meeting to meeting shuffling bits of stuff every now and then. Attending conference calls that could be audio or video or physical or some mix of the three.
Park that thought for a minute.
Now take a look at time. How long it takes for things to be done. Quite often, the biggest single delay in a process is the time required for getting the “right” people together. How do these people get together? Via the strange negotiation process I referred to earlier. As a result, the time taken to do something is often heavily influenced, if not altogether dictated, by the interactions between the diaries of groups of people.
In principle things like prioritisation and importance fall by the wayside, although organisational structures and status and hard-working PAs can do something to raise priority. Most of the time, it is the scheduling process that sets the priority. Which is strange in itself.
To make matters worse, particularly in large firms, there is some implied code whereby someone who wasn’t at a meeting is able to reopen debates about decisions taken in his absence. Now, since there’s always someone absent at every meeting, what it means in practice is that decision loops become infinite. And nothing gets done.
I have always tried to counter this tyranny of meetings and schedules by having a concept of fixed time versus variable time. I limit the number of meetings that I commit to more than 48 hours in advance. This way, there is a balance between things I commit to well in advance and things I commit to in the short term. I have this sense that what I do makes sense (otherwise I wouldn’t do it….), but I wondered how other people viewed this. I try and describe this attitude as “fixed time versus variable time”; fixed time refers to the meetings you fix more than 48 hours ahead, and variable time refers to the shorter term; call it what you like, I don’t care, as long as we speak about the same thing.
I was in Brussels recently, attending an Identity Open Space organised by The Liberty Alliance and Kaliya Hamlin et al… thanks to all who made the event happen. It was a good session, one where I met old and new friends: Doc, Adriana, Steve, Ben and Kaliya, amongst others. More later on thi.
Kaliya kicked off the second day by reminding everyone about the Principles of Open Space, shown below:
What intrigues me about all this is the following:
Owner-managed companies have no problem with schedule and meeting conflict, or about reopening decisions after they were taken. Why? Because what the boss says, happens.
Self-organising events also have no problem with all this, as the Open Spaces principles suggest. Open Spaces have been around for a long time…. Johnnie Moore, who introduced me to them, suggests that the concept was formed sometime in the 1980s by Harrison Owen, and has continued to evolve ever since. For those who are interested, here’s Johnnie on the subject: link.
At the two extremes, owner-managed and volunteer-self-organising, there is no problem. The problem is in that great space in between, particularly in large firms and public sector companies and governments. All bureaucracies.
Which makes me think. If you want to kill a bureaucracy you must kill the diary and schedule first. Views and comments welcome.