As I See It: The Power Of Pizza
September 11, 2017 Victor Rozek
When you become the richest man in the world, if only for a few hours by virtue of stock market fluctuations, you nonetheless acquire an additional layer of gravitas. Suddenly, everything you say or do has added significance. Small actions are credited with great meaning. The trivial becomes transcendent.
Which is probably why, the day after the New York Times announced that Jeff Bezos had toppled Bill Gates from his golden throne as the world’s richest man, the usually sober Business Insider gushed about his managerial prowess. The article appeared under the preposterous headline: “The ‘two pizza rule’ is a secret to productive meetings that helped Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos become one of the world’s richest men.”
The premise is that Bezos hates meetings, and believes that any hope of achieving outcomes is inversely proportional to the number of people attending the meeting. The more people, the less likely anything will be accomplished. (Amazing, no one ever realized this before.) So he instituted the “two pizza rule,” which says never invite more people to a meeting than can be fed by two pizzas. Jeff, if that meeting involves any of the guys I know, it’s going to be a mighty small group. Probably just the two of you, with the slow eater having to settle for a couple of slices.
Besides, didn’t Amazon just fork over $14 billion for Whole Foods? You’d think they could spring for something a little chi-chier than pizza. How about some overpriced organic food? I guarantee a meeting that promised two heads of broccoli would not be over crowded.
Even before I read the article, I knew it had to be worshipful thinking, because if productivity and wealth had anything to do with eating pizza, I’d be as productive as an ant colony, and wealthier than Trump thinks he is. (Actually, people obsessed with ranking the rich were quick to point out that if you include those with ill-gotten rubles, the wealthiest person on the planet is neither Gates nor Bezos. The world’s richest man is none other than Trump’s personal idol – the current Czar of Russia. His wealth is estimated at $200 billion, more than the combined fortunes of Gates and Bezos. And just how did he accumulate so much money? Best not to ask too many questions, comrade.)
Putting the notion of limiting-attendance-by-limiting-pizza aside for a moment, Bezos has a point. If there is a universal bane in corporate life, it has to be the frequency of meetings. Any business with more than one person will eventually be forced to schedule one. The problem is, meetings interrupt work, and the truly effective people are busy being, you know, effective. They create things, think deep thoughts, and fill their time being enviously productive. As social theorist Thomas Sowell observed: “The least productive people are usually the ones who are most in favor of holding meetings.”
I’m sure I’ve attended hundreds over my career, and not a single one was memorable enough to stay in RAM. Even the ones I presided over. Especially the ones I presided over.
Actually, I do remember one meeting, although I no longer recall all the specifics. What I do remember clearly is the intent of the other two people involved. It occurred many years ago when I was a first-level manager and was summoned to a meeting with my manager and her manager. Some foul-up had occurred and our IT department head wanted to get to the bottom of it. It soon became clear, however, that his primary purpose was not to understand the nature of the problem, but to identify who was to blame. His managerial style required someone he could fault, someone he could punish.
My manger, on the other hand, was curious to discover why the procedures she had put in place failed. She was wholly process oriented and not the least bit interested in finding a scapegoat. Her goal was to identify the flaw in the process and improve it. I think I learned more about management in that one meeting than I did in a year on the job.
I also remember, we weren’t offered pizza.
There are several types of meetings, however, which an astute manager can manipulate by providing or withholding food.
The Informational Meeting is one where a manager speaks and everyone else pretends to listen. The flow is top down and unidirectional. No need for discussion or debate. Typically, if the news is neutral, food isn’t served because nothing is expected of the participants so there is no need to bribe them. But sometimes, when the staff won’t like what they’re going to hear, food is provided to help listeners swallow the bad news.
The Strategizing Meeting invites discussion and differences of opinion. They’re sessions that decide how best to move from the present state of affairs to a more desirable state. If the present state is not demonstrably dreadful, food may be used as an incentive. If the company is teetering on the brink of failure and the people in the room are responsible, let somebody else taste the food first.
Then there’s the Status Meeting. That’s where we find out how everybody is doing and what everybody is doing. A smart manager understands that employees are obliged to listen, but can’t be expected to get feverish about the travails of, say, the shipping department or accounts payable. So food provides a nice distraction.
The only person I know who actually enjoyed meetings is my mother-in-law, who in more innocent times worked for Atari. It was the beginning of gaming when Pong was high innovation, and the company welcomed brainstorming sessions searching for the next big idea. “All ideas were treated with respect,” she said. “It was important for everyone to be able to speak freely; even to say something seemingly ridiculous without fear of criticism or mockery, in order to generate creative ideas.” It was, she recalled, “a wonderful working environment. Extremely courteous. There can be no civility without respect.” Then she paused wistfully and added, “Too bad the concept hasn’t been adopted by Congress.”
Indeed, is there any institution more enamored of holding endlessly unproductive meetings than our very own Congress? Maybe the rich guy is on to something. Five hundred thirty five people is just way too many to get anything done. When Amazon takes over the world maybe we can look forward to the two pizza Congress.
Couldn’t hurt. And the Amazon drones can deliver it.