Meetings, diversity, and opportunity (DRAFT)

Draft!  Work in progress!  Feedback, please …

My frustration at the anti-computer attitude goes beyond the generational gap of an academic conference. I’ve found that this same attitude tends to be present in many workplace environments. Blackberries and laptops are often frowned upon as distraction devices. As a result, few of my colleagues are in the habit of creating backchannels in business meetings. This drives me absolutely bonkers, especially when we’re talking about conference calls. I desperately, desperately want my colleagues to be on IM or IRC or some channel of real-time conversation during meetings.

— danah boyd, in I want my cyborg life

danah’s excellent essay, and another by Paul Graham that I’ll discuss below, provide a great chance to expand on the strategic importance of diversity that I started discussing in Qworky: the adventure begins and Guys talking to guys who talk about guys.

As danah describes so well, when people who are used to a multi-tasking collaborative cognitive style are forcibly cut off from information and social networks, it can feel like being lobotomized.  On the other hand, some people prefer to focus on a single task may find the presence of a multi-tasker distracting. An added complication is that everybody’s skills deteriorate to some extent when multi-tasking.  On the other hand, some people are notably better at it than others, and especially when applied judiciously it can be a big help.  Are there ways to better accommodate both styles?

There was a great example of this in our team meeting last night.  One of the key participants came down with a virus, and so wound up having to call in — but the meeting was being held in a room without a decent speakerphone.*  Yikes!  Fortunately, there was a good multi-tasker in the room (me), and so by providing a running commentary in a chat room and relaying her input to everybody else, we were able to bridge the gap to a large extent.  The chat log also proved useful when somebody who had been stuck in traffic showed up late: she was quickly able to see what she had missed.  As a result, the meeting as a whole was remarkably productive.

Imagine meeting software that’s designed from the beginning with multiple use models in mind: highly-connected multitasking discussions, “laptops off, please, we’re going to concentrate here”, and the whole range of possibilities in between.  There are a lot of situations where that’d lead to much more effective and efficient meetings.   For people and organizations that have a lot of meetings, the return on investment for improvement here could be very significant.

“Makers”, “managers” — and everybody else

Paul Graham’s Maker’s schedule vs. manager’s schedule focuses on different attitudes towards time.   Paul describes a manager’s schedule as “embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals.”  Programmers and other “makers”, by contrast, prefer their best work with long unscheduled blocks of time; Paul does a great job of discussing how the prospect of a meeting in the afternoon affects his productivity and his emotional state throughout the day.  As Steven Dubner’s Read this if you hate meetings on the Freakonomics blog and the various commenters there illustrate, it’s a distinction that resonates with a lot of people.

While there are a handful of companies like 37 Signals and Fog City Software that come at things from the maker perspective, it seems to me that most work-related software reflects a managers’ use model.  Even more interesting, though, is who’s not included in Paul’s taxonomy.   As Peter Gibbons says in the Freakonomics comments:

Sheesh! Managers…makers… I guess that means we peons like Peter Gibbons in the movie “Office Space”, (executive or admin assistants, secretaries, etc.) are the real nobodies. Managers have a great deal of autonomy determining what they do and when they do it; so-called ‘makers’ only slightly less so. What about us poor schmucks, uh, assistants?

Yeah, really.  A recent study by Doodle reported that managers and administrative staff prefer different tools for scheduling meetings, and that “managers typically need to rearrange more meetings than their assistants, with 69% of managers needing to reschedule get-togethers compared with less than half (46%) of admin pros.”  So paying attention to these kinds of differences could have huge impact.   Wouldn’t you like it if a lot fewer meetings were recheduled multiple times?

And more generally, imagine products that are designed to take into account the needs of managers, makers, and administrative professional — and the interactions between them — instead of assuming that everybody should operate a single way.  For example, suppose we could make it easier for admins to allow makers with key information to participate in meetings without having to interrupt their unblocked time.  It’d be a big win all around: not only would it increase everybody’s productivity, meetings wouldn’t be filled with (justifiably) surly makers, and so they’d be much more pleasurable experiences.

An opportunity

If you combine these two dimensions of diversity with Ronna Lichtenberg’s pink and blue communication styles, there are a dozen different types: pink multi-tasking managers, blue single-tasking admins, and so on.   So one huge potential opportunity is to identify underserved audiences.  For example, offerings that work well for pink manager styles may have some major advantages to a significant market segment — advantages that’ll be very difficult for existing products to respond to, because the biases are likely to be baked into their conceptual model and implementation.   And as I hoped the examples above convey, there can be also opportunities from bridging the gap between styles.

From Qworky’s perspective, we’d ideally like to have all these different dimensions of diversity reflected in our personas — and tracked as part of the feedback we get.**  Even if this proves too ambitious for us right out of the box, we’ll want to find ways of keeping these aspects in mind as we define our products and get feedback on them.

Even before all this happens, though, what I’m noticing is that just by being aware of these differences we’re starting to develop some very innovative approaches to meeting design and notetaking.   Our own early results are extremely promising, and while we’re clearly far from representative of our target audience a lot of the prinicples seem surprisingly general.  Of course there are still all kinds of open questions; but judging from the effect on our own productivity and team dynamics, it seems like we may well be on to something.

And from a strategy perspective, if we are, whoa baby.  People who have built companies and designed software without taking these considerations into account are likely to have a very hard time adapting: others’ company culture, user interaction patterns, staffing, community, and revenue streams are all likely to have biases that are so deeply ingrained that they’ll have a hard time evolving quickly to greater diversity.  So a combination of a design that respects diversity and a highly-diverse company and community is potentially an unusual and remarkably defensible sustainable competitive advantage.

Sounds like an opportunity to me!


* note to self: buy decent speakerphone

** as well as the traditional dimensions of diversity: gender, age, race, …