Post-Muskian meeting rules

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“There are reasons we have rules.”

In the long list of statements I’ve heard that set my teeth so on edge that I need an orthodontist, this one ranks near the top, because yes, there are reasons for rules. If we’d just pay more attention to the reason and less to arbitrary enforcement we’d all be far better off.

It appears Elon Musk and I agree, this being the 6th of his recently published 6 productivity rules. The other five, which revolve around meetings and how to reduce their negative impacts, are worth your time as well.

No matter how much you agree with the two of us, though, you don’t set the rules in your company. And I’d bet that even in Tesla and SpaceX, some meetings aren’t just necessary. They’re important.

Take, for example, getting approval to proceed with something or other. While there are organizations and situations where an email chain might be sufficient, there are plenty more where you don’t have the authority, you need to get it, and you won’t get it without a meeting or three.

Here are my rules when you need approval to proceed:

Rule #1: Be confident you’re right. In negotiations, “deal momentum” is a fatal mistake. Fall in love with the deal and you’re likely to get a bad one. Whatever you need approval to do, falling in love with the idea is just as likely to be fatal. You’re at risk of confirmation bias — of proposing a mistake, and, worse, getting caught at it, because you only sought out evidence and logic that supports the idea — ammunition, that is, not information.

Make sure you’ve dug deep enough that whatever unpleasant surprises might hit you while you are proceeding, that fatal ones aren’t likely to be among them.

Rule #2: Know who the approvers are. You need to do more than just look at the company’s org chart for this. You need to understand who is likely to be significantly affected by your idea, and how; you also need to understand which of them could torpedo your quest for approval, either because they have the authority to say no, or because they have strong relationships with those who have the authority to say no.

There’s political power that’s described by the org chart, and then there’s all that other political power that isn’t on a diagram but is no less real and important.

Step 3: Map and use your degrees of separation. From Step 2 you know who you need to persuade. Next you need to figure out who you know whom you need to persuade to introduce you to whom you need to persuade, or, failing that, to introduce you to whom you need to persuade to introduce you to the person they know who can introduce you.

Get those introductions and use them to schedule meetings. One on one meetings, because introducing an idea in a group meeting and asking for approval in the same meeting is futile. Nobody with any political sense is even going to ask the questions that matter to them in a group setting, let alone put their stamp of approval on it before they’ve had a chance to explore the risks and ramifications.

In a one-on-one setting they can at least explore the subject in more depth.

Keep these meetings going until you have at least a majority of the approvers you need in your camp. To the extent possible make these face-to-face, white-board-driven meetings, so you can watch how each other think and react.

Oh, and by the way — these aren’t actually one-on-one meetings. More likely they should be be two on two: You and your “subject matter expert” facing your target and her subject matter expert. A key piece of the persuasion puzzle is convincing your target you’ve explored the subject in depth. To do this you need someone in the room who can respond to questions in depth.

Your role is to direct traffic, and to make sure “depth” doesn’t turn into “rabbit hole.”

Step 4: Have “the meeting.” Now that everyone who matters agrees … or, if not everyone, enough of those who matter … it’s safe to get them together so they can hear each other agree.

It’s also safe to use PowerPoint, and to include some participants via web conferencing if that’s geographically necessary.

Seem like a lot of meetings? Seem like the bigger the organization the more meetings you’ll need?

Sorry, Elon. In most businesses the only alternative is for good ideas to die without ever getting a fair hearing.

Comments (2)

  • Good advice. You said:

    “Oh, and by the way — these aren’t actually one-on-one meetings. More likely they should be be two on two: You and your “subject matter expert” facing your target and her subject matter expert. A key piece of the persuasion puzzle is convincing your target you’ve explored the subject in depth. To do this you need someone in the room who can respond to questions in depth.”

    Now I know who to “blame” for the election (you should have been force-feeding this concept to Sec. Clinton and her people on how to explain and respond to the “server” issue). And, for the the Capitol Hill Facebook debacle, where none of the 44 Senators present knew how to ask Zuckerberg even one useful question.

    Although living in the Bay Area, I can see why Facebook couldn’t imagine that a Cambridge sociology Ph.D would be a spy, which I believe him to be. After all the definition of sociology is “the systematic study of the development, structure, interaction, and collective behavior of organized groups of human beings”, so professionally he, much better than most, had to know the consequences of violating the terms of his contract with Facebook and selling his data for any political use.

  • Your post sounds a lot like the Japanese practice of Nemawashi. Nemawashi is the process of giving individual attention to all the departments which make up a system in preparation for an impending change (uncovering the roots). This involves listening to each effected part of the organization to identify and address that group’s needs through one-on-one discussions and small meetings.


    Nemawashi describes the process of gaining consensus from stakeholders so they know what to expect before public meetings, provides stakeholders an opportunity to provide feedback and allows you to gauge the reaction of each stakeholder in private, and allows asking one on one questions that could become roadblocks in a public setting. Nemawashi provides time to clarify the complexity of the problem, to determine disconnects, and find what needs to be changed.


    Nemawashi invests in relationships through listening, identifying needs, de conflicting elements, and persuasion to build consensus.


    “Nemawashi is done to make sure the senior people know what is going on before a meeting takes place” (to prevent embarrassments), “to make sure there is no scope for public displays of conflicting opinions (to maintain harmony) and to gauge opinion on ideas and modify them accordingly. It can be done in small groups with various key players, informally though socializing or more formally in a nemawashi meeting.”


    Nemawashi allows the organization to have “this AND that” rather than “this OVER that.” “Consensus doesn’t require compromise.”


    Nemawashi helps the company to “grow in one direction.”


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