In Praise of Meetings

I know. I know. We all hate meetings...But should we?

I’ve been thinking about meetings lately as I read social science work. It has helped me understand and appreciate meetings.

Conversational size is four. 

I’ve often wondered why the best work in a meeting occurs when it’s just four people, sometimes five.

Anthropologists who observe social situations have observed the natural size of group conversations is four or fewer. Notice next time you are at a party notice what happens when a fifth person joins a conversation. At first there might be an effort to keep one conversation, especially if there is a person with high status who is speaking. But fairly soon, the group breaks up into smaller conversational cells. 

When I was younger and less certain of my status, I took it personally when this happened. It turns out we’re all just humans. Wish I’d known that when I was 20.

Meeting as ritual.

Another insight comes from reading The Evolution of Human Cooperation by Charles Standish. He puts forward the idea that the more group coordination required, the more ritual associated with it. He cites examples of different types of activities and the associated rites and magic associated in ancient Polynesian and other civilizations. The central ritual of modern organizations is the meeting. And it is true that the more coordination required for a project, the more meetings. Rites and magic are optional.

Meetings as deep work.

I am reading Deep Work, where Cal Newport advocates for more time spent in contemplative work away from the distractions of email, text, Slack, and shared office space. 

Twice in my career I worked on my own (in the mid 2000s and again in 2016). Each time I found myself pulled into other people’s agendas through email, text, and other media (in the 2000s it was voicemail; today it is Slack & social media). Turns out I use meetings to keep me focused.

A good problem solving meeting (4 people or less) – is like deep work. We keep each other on task. We are focused for 30-90 minutes on a small set of related topics.

Within a company, it is important to have a combination of deep work meetings and deep work of individuals. Too many larger coordination meetings is either a sign of excess complexity or poor meeting management. Or maybe inadequate magic.

Larger coordination meetings can be effective, however, for communicating goals and solving internal logistics problems. They even help build creativity by cross fertilizing ideas, problems, and solutions. A study to observe how scientist work found that lab meetings were crucial to effective & creative research. Turns out big breakthroughs in science are more likely a result of a staff meeting than being hunched over a microscope.

It seems, though, that these meetings are also the ones at highest risk of someone falling asleep. I wish I had words of wisdom to eliminate this problem. I suppose one is: don’t do these meetings more than once a week. Second: if someone falls asleep, don’t invite them to the next one.

Natural breaks in meeting sizes

Work by Robin Dubar (you may have heard of the Dunbar number) seems to show that our social networks exist in layers of intimacy with about 5, then about another 10, followed by about another 30, then a total of about 150 people.

I think these numbers also correspond to the rough size of different meetings. If you want to solve a knarly problem or brainstorm effectively, don’t have a group bigger than five.

If you want to have a conversation among a larger group where one or two present information and others ask in depth questions, 15 people is about the max. It is a useful limit for a coordination meeting, corporate boards, and most committees. It is the maximum size of meeting that has direct decisions and results in cooperative learning.

If you have a meeting with roughly 50 people, you can only have one presenter at a time and limited questions and comments. These meetings can be used for updates and community building, but not for decisions or creativity. They should be short and infrequent.

Meetings to build identity and shared values

Really large meetings of 100 and more are not about decisions or “real work.” They are important and can be effective, however, as long as they are done with the right goals in mind. These meetings are about creating a sense of connection and identity of the group. Also, they are best done at the end of the work week, preferably with beer.

Meetings of thousands and larger are about broadcasting and instilling shared values. Both are used to communicate high level goals and get the organization aligned on the same objectives. Most leaders are terrible at these types of meetings and it makes them a huge waste of time.

What makes for an effective large meeting? The most important are stories that connect what the organization wants with what individuals do every day. That is why skilled politicians use stories so often. A second insight I learned from reading Harari’s books (especially Sapiens). A big meeting is about building shared mythologies — by “mythology” I mean epic stories, not fake stories — that help define the culture of a company, non-profit, or state. That is why speeches for big audiences so often invoke the founding of a country, company, or organization.

I’ve learned to appreciate meetings that are well executed, right-sized, and well timed. A well run organization will have lots and lots of opportunity for deep work for individuals and small groups, occasional large meetings of about 45-50, and rare very large meetings over 100 people.

Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash

A Nuanced View on Automation & AI

Automation won’t be as gnarly as the apocalyptic views. A more nuanced view from Brookings and McKinsey. Photo by Katarzyna Pe on Unsplash

I read through the summary of the report on automation by Brookings and McKinsey. It is worth reviewing because it is a realistic, nuanced view of the dangers and opportunities of automation.

It feels like the conversation is moving closer to what we had before the big advances in neural networks. Those advances, especially Alpha Go Zero, set off a frenzy of speculation that all our jobs were doomed and an AI superintelligence would subjugate us puny-brained humans. I think we are realizing that while the latest advances are amazing, they are still brittle. Alpha Go Zero can’t drive a truck or even tie shoelaces, even if it can whip anyone’s ass at Go.

It feels more likely that ten years from now we will have really powerful pattern matching machines that can do things like drive trucks and tie shoelaces. Yet those machines will probably suck at playing Go.

Are You the Reason it is “Art?”

The reason art moves you might connected to your thinking about yourself. Photo by Martino Pietropoli on Unsplash

Brain science is uncovering clues on what makes art a moving experience and it is pointing to you. Turns out that when people report having the most moving experiences with art — albeit while inside a machine with powerful magnets whirling around them (an fMRI machine) — they activate their default mode network. That circuit in the brain has been shown to also be activated during self-reflection about oneself, the past, the future, and social relationships. I think of it as the daydream circuit.

This paper, “The brain on art: intense aesthetic experience activates the default mode network” is one that goes into the detail of the findings. It is part of a new field of neuroaesthetics that aims to understand why we find things beautiful and moving. It is an integration of psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary theory.

I recently read a related book, Reductionism in Art and Brain Science [excerpt here] that goes into the core questions of why we are attracted to art. Eric Kandel points out the importance of the bottom up and top down processing by the brain. Bottom up processes are ones that favor symmetry, certain colors, and shapes. Top down start with culture and ideology and continue through influences of family, peer group and personal experiences.

These are fascinating results coming out of the integration of fields that used to be totally separate. I’m excited to watch this space develop.

Taking the Nature Pill

There is growing evidence that spending time in nature is good for us. I first learned of this research through a Hidden Brain episode, then Mera looked up some of the research for a Whisky Papers, and recently researchers at UMich showed evidence of dosing.

How much nature is enough? The answer was that stress hormones decline a lot after 20-30 minutes but much after that “dose.” (Note: this was a 1st study with small sample size, so it is still, you know, early science. I.e. could be totally wrong) The idea is to get to a recommended dose for a “Nature Pill.” In the study, they took the pill 3 times a week.

This morning I decided to try it out for myself. Instead of working out, I took a slow, mindful walk through Golden Gate Park. It was a tiny stroll. I purposely slowed down. This was not about exercise, I reminded myself. This was about … something else that is also important. Connecting w/ nature and simply being there. What is the experience of nature? What is the experience of me? And of me in nature.

Some things I noticed:

It is hard to disconnect from the mechanical world. In San Francisco, even inside a park, there are sounds of cars, trucks, and rail from the roads only hundreds of meters away. Jets roar overhead. You have to walk into the woods to allow the bird song and crunch of the trail compete with the crunch of the mechanical.

It is hard to disconnect from the information world. I have gotten better about setting borders from info tech and my life, but it was so hard to resist the pull of the smartphone. The early part of my walk was fine — great really. There I was, walking slowly among the trees, the grass, and flowers listening to birds. What were these small birds I saw? They seemed different from the buntings and other small birds I’ve seen in my yard. After about ten minutes, my curiosity turned to a kind of mild anxiety. Couldn’t find out? I have a bird identification app. Surely I could violate my tech border for this. It was something connected to nature after all! I pulled out my phone, fiddled with it a bit and in the process realized that just that small act removed me from the experience. Even the few photos I snapped on my phone pulled me out of the experience of being there.

In the University of Michigan study, subjects were asked not to use their phones while taking their nature “pill” (they also were not allowed conversations or reading). There was no control of people just sitting for 20 minutes without using their phones, reading, or talking. I wonder if that intervention alone can improve stress levels.

The experience of being in nature really is calming. I know this sounds obvious to most people. Yet, I don’t build a nature pill into my week. I bet most people don’t. Today’s experience was enough to convince me. I’m going to try 3-4 days of nature pills into my weekly habits.

Borders >> Productivity

Photo by André Bandarra on Unsplash

I am trying to create more borders. In today’s world, laptops, smartphones, email, Slack, and text make it so easy to merge our work lives and off-duty lives. It really requires discipline to wall off portions of my life from the pressure of being online, on email, on Slack, and on social media. I can’t say I’m doing great, but here are things I’m trying:

  • Check email only once or twice a day. Importantly, setting expectations by putting a footer on each email, “Text if urgent – I aspire to check email once a weekday.”
  • Do a shut down process at the end of my work day where I assess what went well and what is high priority for the next day.
  • Setting a timer when I engage in social media and other fun diversions.
  • Establish a day during the weekend when I avoid email and being online.

I find my life is more creative and focused when I create time away from the computer. It opens up space for fun, family, & friends.

I think I can also make the case that it makes me more productive and focused. Obviously, it reduces the total time I spend “working” but the real question is what kind of work. With this approach, I end up doing more deep work.

How Tesla Insurance Could Work

Photo by Roberto Nickson on Unsplash

It is simple, really…More Autopilot = Less Accidents

Most commentary [pay wall] about Tesla’s new insurance point to the data that the company can gather from customers’ cars, an idea pioneered by other insurance companies like Progressive and Metromile. Could Tesla know even more? Of course. They probably can not, however, improve dramatically on other insurance companies who have been measuring car data for over a decade. Also, personal insurance is often limited by states like California in how they can use that data. There will be some information, like video from cameras, that should make it easier to identify who is at fault, which would be a minor advantage. Claims adjustment is a minor cost for an insurance program.

Everyone, however, is missing a basic insight. As Tesla cars become more autonomous, they will get in fewer, and more minor accidents. That is a big deal. The biggest costs in insurance are collisions, especially major ones, and especially the ones involving injury and death. This is an advantage that Progressive et al will never have unless they join with an autonomous car company.

There is more to the story. As more people use autopilot for more and more miles, the liability for those miles is going to accrue mostly to Tesla, not the driver. Just like anti-lock brakes and other safety equipment, the maker of autonomous features will be liable in case it doesn’t perform properly. Less liability for the driver means less liability for their insurance company.

It all adds up to declining risk for the insurance company that stands behind the driver. It does, however, mean more risk for Tesla shareholders, but if I’m Tesla, I might as well get a benefit from that that additional risk. Tesla Motors can offer it’s customers cheaper insurance while Tesla Insurance can profit from declining claims.

Oh, and perhaps another bonus to having Tesla Insurance. Guess who often pays for the lawsuit when there is a dispute between the driver and the automobile company? Yup, the insurance company. There might be legal limits on how cozy that relationship can be (and if there aren’t there should be). Even with regulation, though, it seems inevitable that Tesla Insurance will be biased against bringing suit against Tesla Motors.

I’m a bit surprised that most observers don’t get the obvious connection. This is likely a fruitful direction for Tesla and it plays to their focus on autonomy.

About the author, Sunil Paul. He was co-founder and CEO of the company that invented ridesharing (Sidecar), helped incubate Getaround at Singularity University, sponsored the first law to protect peer-to-peer car sharing, and was on the board of one of the first car sharing projects. Disclosure: I own a small amount of Tesla stock, which is not material to my net worth.

Consciousness Everywhere? Or just lots of places…

Photo by Pawel Czerwinski

After years looking into the science of consciousness, it seems to me that consciousness is “everywhere” – or at least in all sorts of unexpected places.

When my father developed dementia many years ago, I became curious about his consciousness as he slipped deeper into an Alzheimer fog. Several years ago I went to a conference, The Science of Consciousness, and since then have read several books related to the topic. The most recent one is “Superminds” by Tom Malone.

Malone summarizes the work in consciousness well by stacking it in a kind of hierarchy from the most basic idea of being conscious to the most esoteric, without venturing into the mystical (or dualistic) level. In other words, there are many ways to define consciousness and we can examine them using the tools of science.

The surprising outcome is we are surrounded by consciousness. It might be more abundant than life itself.

Here are the categories (he summarizes others’ work including “Consciousness” which I’m looking forward to reading):

Awareness. We could define consciousness as simply responding to the world. This is a distinction between being asleep and awake or whether one is under the effect of anesthesia. It also allows for something like a burglar alarm to be defined as conscious. After all, it takes inputs from the world and responds. Recently we’ve found that bacterial masses communicate information among themselves. And we also know that human organizations of all sorts are aware of their world under this definition.

Self-awareness. You might say that awareness is not enough. Well, perhaps the more is needed for consciousness. That an entity needs to be aware of itself and can tell others about itself. You can say you are hungry or confused. Humans can do this. But other animals can as well. Their communications may not be easily understood by us, for example, when a baby bird opens its mouth to signal hunger. And non-living things like my laptop or a car are able to communicate their internal states (charge me up!). Organizations, too, have processes to understand their internal states and communicate them. Consider, for example, financial reporting, as a way to communicate whether a company needs more funding.

Goal-directed behavior. The idea that a baby bird or your laptop is conscious might give you pause. Perhaps you want to define consciousness as taking intention action to achieve a goal. That is the intervention that seems to happen in our heads when we want to change what can seem like being on autopilot. When driving I sometimes find myself driving to the wrong place because, for example, I always drive to the kids’ school in the morning on weekdays. That daily drive could almost be done by a robot. But when I decide I have to drive elsewhere – downtown for a meeting – perhaps that is consciousness? But can we really say that many animals do not have intention when they pursue food, sex, and the other vitals of life? And there is the problem of understanding the intentions of another entity. Can we ever know whether there is intent in the mind of a salmon wanting to swim up river to its spawning spot? For that matter, what happens when TurboTax tries to figure out your taxes? That “intent” was programmed by developers, which in turn was developed collaboratively with the humans inside Intuit, the company that makes TurboTax.

Integrated Information. The evidence from neuroscience is that there are lots of types of information that are integrated during mental states that we associate with consciousness. This fact figures prominently in the Global Workspace Theory of consciousness. We know this happens in mammal brains, but what happens with a plant? Doesn’t it integrate information about sunlight, air, nutrients, and water to grow? I’ve even seen demonstrations of signals passing through plants in response to touch. And of course organizations like Wikipedia integrate information from lots of individual human and software editors to create an article. Perhaps Wikipedia is conscious?

Experience. The experience of being “like” something has been the definition of consciousness that is most widely used by philosophers, especially those who propose that consciousness is a “hard problem, ” most famously framed by philosopher Thomas Nagel asking, “What is it like to be a bat?” Malone walks through an example of how Apple (and most organizations) could be conscious in this way.

The most intriguing direction, though, has been work on Integrated Information Theory. It posits a mathematical description of consciousness that I am still getting my head around. The net output is a quantity, phi, that predicts the degree of consciousness of an animal, a brain, an organization, a circuit, or any information-processing network. It has interesting predictions, including some that are non-intuitive. For example, that if you replayed the neural code of an experience in a brain (assuming you could do that), it would not be consciousness. But that an LED with one bit of memory (a flip flop) has a minimal amount of consciousness. I found these two lectures helpful in understanding the concepts.

So it seems there are lots of systems that can experience consciousness. That experience, though, is not necessarily one we can relate to. What is like to be a flip flop circuit? I don’t know if any human can ever know that experience. Like so many times in our human history, like when we discovered that we are not the center of the universe over and over, the study of consciousness seems to show that human consciousness is not the center of the universe either.

Questions about Technology

Some questions I’m asking myself about technology:

  1. Can we know whether a technology will have unintended consequences?
  2. How can we know whether a technology claim is bullshit? i.e. is there way to know whether a technology’s direction is likely to pan out?
  3. Is there a way to structure technology so it delivers on a particular social outcome?
  4. When should we adapt to our tech and when should it adapt to society’s demands? Can we ever count on technology to not exceed the bounds we (society) place on it?
  5. When will the rate of change of technology slow down or speed up? Can we better predict it?
  6. Was Marx right? Is capitalism + technology headed for a clash of classes?