©2020 by Sarah Downey

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Startup trek, episode 38: Elementary, Dear Data



Season 2, episode 3, "Elementary, Dear Data"


Lesson: only talk in a meeting if you have something useful to say


This post is part of my ongoing quest to watch every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and pull one startup, entrepreneurship, tech, or investing lesson from each.


"When the Enterprise arrives a few days early at its rendezvous point to meet the USS Victory, the crew have a bit of leisure time on their hands. For Data and Geordi Laforge, it means a trip to the holodeck and 221B Baker St. With Data in the role of Holmes and Laforge as Dr. Watson, they take on a challenge from Dr. Pulaski that Data couldn't solve a genuine mystery. Data has a bit of time adjusting to a real mystery - as opposed to one for which he knows the outcome. In giving the holodeck computer its instructions however, Geordi's specifications for an opponent results in a far superior creation than expected putting them and the entire ship in danger."


Plot summary by garykmcd on IMDB

There's a scene where the key Enterprise crew members are sitting around a table discussing how to solve the problem of a holodeck AI who's gotten too smart for his own good. As the conversation continued, I realized that Riker hadn't said anything. We're a bit out of Riker's depth here, to be fair. The ship is under the AI's control, which threatens Picard. Geordi was the one who inadvertently created the problem. Data is the intellectual equal of the AI. Troi can keep an emotional check on the hostage. Worf may have to storm in with a security team. But Riker? He's just hanging out.


And you know what? If he doesn't have anything to say that'll add value, it's perfectly fine for him to stay quiet.


Meetings, particularly board meetings, have a primary purpose of solving one or more problems and keeping people updated. That is the stated reason why so many busy people are in this (very expensive) spot at the same time. But there's a secondary, unarticulated purpose: ego maintenance for the people in the room. No matter how experienced they are or the dynamics of the group, many people want to demonstrate their value or intelligence and view meetings as an exhibition for these things. It stems from insecurity but is bolstered by ego: everyone wants to show why they're there and why they matter.


As you may have guessed, this grandstanding irritates me. Companies have too many meetings, period. Most are inefficient at best and complete time sucks at worst. Board meetings are particularly time-consuming when you consider the week or so it takes the founder and her team to build the board deck, the travel time for board members to get to the meeting spot, the 2-3 hours in the meeting, and the pre and post-meeting calls. It's a problem when it takes away from the real, actual work of the startup. This is one of the reasons why we're reexamining boards at Accomplice and asking whether companies need them at all when they're still very early.


Everyone is there to do the same job--help the company as best as we can--and yet there's so much wasted time spent on meeting attendees' self-interested tangents. Some boards and meetings are better than others, but one thing I see almost always is the Loudest Voice In The Room Guy (and yes, he's always a guy) talking himself up the entire meeting by name-dropping all the important people he knows or can get access to or has hung out with lately. Or suggesting a product feature as though it's a moment of divine inspiration, when of course the founders have thought of this and a thousand other features because this is their job. But because it's a board member, everyone has to smile and nod as though it's a wonderful contribution. Multiply that by 100 and you see the kind of time-wasting crap that happens all the time in board meetings.


Two famous haters of meeting time-wasting are Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. Bezos has a "two pizza rule" for meetings: if you can't feed everyone in a meeting with two large pizzas, then there are too damn many people in there and you need to cut down the invites. Bezos also limits Amazon investor meetings to six hours per year. That's less than the average early stage startup spends in probably two board meetings.


Musk has three rules for meetings:


1. No large meetings (stick to 4-6 people).

2. If you're not adding value to a meeting, leave.

3. No frequent meetings (thus get rid of recurring calendar invites because meetings should only happen when they're necessary).


Musk has been known to turn to someone in a meeting who hasn't said anything and ask, "Why are you here?" That's a tad aggressive, but I do agree that A), if you find yourself in a meeting where you have nothing to add, it's better to say nothing than to manufacture some image-boosting garbage that doesn't contribute; and B), if it's socially/culturally acceptable for you to leave and there are no follow-ups you're responsible for from the meeting, then by all means leave.


So let's get back to Riker, sitting there at the meeting table and saying nothing. The default reaction to this shouldn't be, "Oh man, how awkward...he isn't contributing anything." It should be "He's listening and now has the context to help after the fact, and he's not wasting everyone's time by interjecting something obvious or selfish when we're on the clock trying to solve a problem." Or maybe Picard doesn't invite Riker at all to the next meeting on threatening AI consciousnesses, because that's simply not Riker's expertise area. Thus Riker can control the helm and cover Picard while he's on CEO crisis duty. Everyone wins.


I just re-watched this scene and Riker does say something towards the end: he asks a question about a potential action they could take. Good for him; he waited and took things in until he had something of value to say. Did he need to? No. It's all about reframing the expectation that speaking in a meeting is always necessary and positive when it can be quite disruptive. The guiding principal should always be, "Does this help the company deal with something important" and not "Am I saying this to make myself seem important/legitimate/valuable?"