Darwin meets Dilbert: Applying the Law of Two Feet to your next meeting | Opensource.com

Darwin meets Dilbert: Applying the Law of Two Feet to your next meeting

Posted 30 Aug 2010 by 

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I came across an interesting concept recently: the Law of Two Feet. Brilliantly simple, it says any time you're in a meeting where you're not contributing nor adding value--you are encouraged to use your two feet and find a place where you can. In other words, if it's not meaningful, and you're not doing your part to make it meaningful, move on.

The concept was first introduced to me in the Fedora Project wiki. The Fedora marketing organization holds regular meetings, mostly by online chat, and they publish notes on the wiki. Their meeting guidelines mentions the Law of Two feet and asks contributors to use their best judgment in which meetings they choose whether or not to attend.

This a subtle but effective example of the open source way in action. In the open source development model, the best projects get the most attention and resources. This happens organically. The others  simply fall away over time or are absorbed into other projects. The Law of Two Feet applies a similar principle to meetings. Think Dilbert meets Darwin.

Some weeks my meeting calendar looks like a game of Tetris where I'm just about to lose. So when I read the Law of Two Feet, the idea stuck. I thought I'd dig deeper.

The Law of Two Feet concept was published in an article by Harrison Owen, a member of an organization advocating Open Spaces Technology, a model for organizing meetings that's based around open participation. Here's how Owen describes the rule:

“Briefly stated, this law says that every individual has two feet, and must be prepared to use them. Responsibility for a successful outcome in any Open Space Event resides with exactly one person—each participant. Individuals can make a difference and must make a difference. If that is not true in a given situation, they, and they alone, must take responsibility to use their two feet, and move to a new place where they can make a difference.”

The beauty of the law is that it allows people to self-select. The projects that are most compelling—and that people are most passionate about—will be the ones that win people's time and effort.

We all have standing meetings. Most are necessary and can't be avoided. Adopting this rule in a corporate environment would no doubt take some time. But the reality is projects that have the greatest chance for success are going to be the ones with the most engaged, active participants. Giving people the opportunity to vote with their feet may help you, and them, find the most worthy projects faster. By canceling a standing meeting that's outgrown its usefulness, you may have saved yourself a lot of time that you could have spent on something more productive.

And here's the other benefit: People feed on purpose and autonomy. Daniel Pink, Gary Hamel, and a host of other leading business thinkers tell us this. When people feel engaged, have some freedom to choose, and feel like they're working toward a larger purpose, they'll be more willing to jump in. If not, they may be better off finding a place where they can.

Of course, not every project is exciting. And some projects just need to be done. Some meetings, too. And even for those meetings, the Law of Two Feet still offers accountability. And not just to the person who called the meeting. Every person has the responsibility to make it matter.

Perhaps Dr. Suess said it best:

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.”

The underlying principle at work is at the core of the open source way. Transfer accountability to others and you just may discover that when people are willing to put in additional time and effort for projects they believe in, they'll find creative solutions that help you do the mandatory work faster, smarter, or in ways you've never considered. Which may just mean fewer meetings.

What do you think? Could this rule work in your organization?

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15 Comments

mths

We tried and I was enthousiastic at first. But it also seemed that to too many meetings too few people came to come to desicions that need a broad support in the whole team. So only small desicions could be made. So few people felt an incentive to come. So less meetings were helt... Sounds great of course ;)

If our projects were more modular or 'stand alone' this would work, but they hardly ever are. So attendence to meetings where your contribution is small, seemed more needed then we thought.

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Matt Burkhardt

It's an opportunity to use the "if I don't hear, I'll figure you've approved", or "absence from the meeting will be accepted as approval" and just go! Always make sure you're letting them know in writing with an explanation of the business reasons and you'll be golden.

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Rich

I'm not sure whether to respond with "I wish I worked where you do" or with "It doesn't work that way in the real world." I've worked plenty of places where if you exercised the rule of two feet, you'd be encouraged to use those two feet right on out the door.

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golfman

I've spent far too many hours in meetings listening to discussions on projects I've never been involved in but have to stay there for when the one project I was involved in came up for discussion.

I think for two feet to work the managers have to schedule more shorter 'project specific' meetings and less long and boring 'whole of department, discuss every project' type meetings.

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Anonymous

If you walk away from a meeting with your peers or managers, no matter how insignificant it may be, you may be asked to just keep walking. It is true that in many cases many people use meetings to justify their useless positions, and those are the same ones that will complain that you're not a team player because you don't go to their meetings. Of course they forget that once the meeting ends, their work is finished, while our work just starts. So one way to prevent that from happening is to actually block your calendar with your own work responsibilities and meet only when you don't have something else to do. Then they may need to meet you according to your possibilities (and you can just say that they're not cooperating and they're not a team player since they can't meet when you're ready).. :)

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David Mudkips

I wish it could work this way, but meeting attendance for this $randomuser$ is more about stopping the wrong decisions from being implemented by the clueless.

Which you could read to mean, they are all wrong and I am right - which doesn't really help the argument.

I'd like to think that I try and balance our users and their customer's needs (as a sysadmin) and that management make demands which lie somewhere between 'not unreasonable' and 'brain-addled'.

But you could read this entire comment and come to the conclusion that I'm a jobsworth luddite unwilling to embrace change,

I humbly suggest that there needs to be some modifier in the original point which steers the population of the group away from those who are able to make a splash by initiating a project and then moving away from it. to those who have the most to gain by completing said project to the best satisfaction of all concerned.

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Dirk

If my contribution is going to be small, I just dial-in to the meeting and can carry on with my work until I'm needed.

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Brad Silva

Being able to contribute to a meeting is only one of two reasons to attend (For me at least).

There's one meeting that I regularly go to where I rarely have anything to add. However, I learn a great deal about things that help me in my job.

In many ways this is the most useful meeting I attend and while I don't contribute, my attendance is of great value to the company.

That being said, this rule is still very useful, you just have to be mindful of exceptions.

--Brad

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freoboy

This law (it's the only law) is a small part of a process called Open Space Technology, which accepts the fact the the Universe is self organising and if we as individuals or organisations, step back a little then self organising does it's work and then we can put the necessary structure around it.
Harrison Owen has written a few books on the subject, but one entitled Wave Riders might be of interest to those who are interested in change or organisational management.
Just using the law of two feet without understanding the underlying concept is a bit like using the steering wheel of a car without the rest of the vehicle, you can go through the motions and say brmmm brmmm but just end up with aching arms from holding the wheel

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Annamarie

John Cleese has a very funny and basic instructional video called, "Meetings Bloody Meetings." It's at least 24 years old with thick English accents so not used much. It makes several points. The most notable: if there's nothing to discuss why is there a meeting?

Meetings are useful when a problem needs to be resolved or a decision made and the combined expertise of the people in the room are necessary to achieve that goal. Some meetings are useful for sharing information.

I think that the Law of Two Feet an be used in an organizational climate that encourages individual contribution, autonomy and accountability. In organizations driven by power - where people jealously guard territory (information) and hierarchies are enforced - the Law of Two Feet simply can't work. Most of the people commenting on this blog are in power organizations.

The Law of Two Feet belongs in context, as freoboy says

Check out Wave Rider.

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Harrison Owen

I love this! When I developed Open Space Technology (OST) some 25 years ago, The Law of Two Feet was something like a blinding flash of the obvious. We all do it albeit sometimes covertly. Just think of the last time you were in a totally boring gathering and ask yourself: "Where was your heart and mind?" Typical answer: Not present. Could be out on the beach, gone fishing, thinking of the next project -- but definitely not there. Only an uncomfortable body remains stuck in a chair -- maybe even snoring. How much better for all if you just went and did something useful!

Just for the record, OST has been around for 25 years. It is a simple approach which enables groups of people (5-2500) to substantively engage complex and conflicted issues in a productive fashion. Uses have ranged from redesigning data centers at Microsoft to creating the manufacturing process for doors on Boeing aircraft to name just two. It has been used in excess of 200,000 times in 136 countries. Not exactly new.

OST is simple to do and it is free (no patent/trademark/franchise. If interested, there is plenty of stuff online -- just Google. Or you could read a book. "Open Space Technology: A User's Guide" 3rd Edition (Barrett-Koehler 2008) Yes I wrote it :-)

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Jamie Colston

I found out about this concept earlier this year and did a one day training course then found a mentor and have been running meetings using this for the last couple of months. All I can say is that if want to work with people who are happy, inspired and empowered then this is a fantastic tool. My mission in life is to inspire people into action and this helps me do just that.

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jonathanopp
Open Enthusiast

Hello Harrison! Thank you very much for posting your comment. It's clear that your idea, while going back 25 years, has certainly remained compelling and relevant. Technologies change, companies change, but we all have finite amounts of time and attention and no shortage of forces competing for it. So thank you for sharing your idea--it's great to hear more about it from the source.

I've been very interested to read all of the different perspectives from people who have tried to apply self-organizing community principles to their meetings and projects, and others that would love to try. Particularly for those where it didn't work, what do you think would have had to change in the organization to make it work? I think Annamarie really hit on something when talking about the right conditions and cultural climate that needs to be in place to support these kinds of principles.

It seems like when people learn about these principles, the aspect they're either most attracted to (or fear most) is the idea that if I don't think a meeting is valuable, I don't have to go. When it seems there is also another side--that it shifts accountability toward the participant. In the real world, some meetings you simply have to attend, and in those cases, you still choose whether or not to engage. I like Brad's comment on this. Of course engagement may not necessarily mean speaking (Nothing worse than a meeting where everyone thinks they have to say something!), but at least listen actively, learn, contribute to a positive atmosphere, use your attendance for good rather than evil... If nothing else, at least the choice you made to "be there" was your own!

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Harrison Owen

I know I am a contrarian and possibly a heretic. But I don't think we have any choice -- about self-organization, that is. As near as I can figure, self organization has been the order of the day for some 13.7 billion years in this cosmos. Choosing self organization might then be compared to choosing gravity. Not much of a choice. But we can make a choice to get with the program -- or not. In this regard our 25 year, 200,000 iteration natural experiment in Open Space could be helpful. Clearly not the only way to go but it has and does work. We have learned that given certain very simple preconditions and following a very simple process the natural powers of self organization simply take over and the groups of people involved find themselves performing at levels most would have thought to be impossible. The preconditions are 1) A real issue of passionate concern to the people involved. 2) Lots of complexity. 3) Lots of diversity. 4) Plenty of passion and conflict. 5) A decision time of yesterday. And the process? Sit in a circle. Create a bulletin board for the issues. Open a Market place to negotiate time and place of meeting. Go to work. That is all there is, and it takes a little more than an hour to initiate even with groups of 2000. Works every time.

Outrageous I know.. But that has been our experience.

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Unidentified

Suess?

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Jonathan Opp is Director of Poetics at New Kind. He is formerly Sr. Manager, Brand Communications + Design at Red Hat and has held communications roles at IBM and Gateway. Jonathan also writes about brand, design, communications, and culture at Applied Poetics. Follow Jonathan on Twitter.

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