The Coke machine syndrome is an expression from the field of corporate management that refers to a kind of behavior often seen in the scheduled meetings of various types of organizations. The idea is that topics which are large, important and abstract tend to occupy much less time and energy in discussions than do simple, specific issues that affect the participants directly, regardless of how trivial they might be.

For example, discussion on strategy, budget, or a high-level policy may end rather quickly and without much participation, but a question such as where to place the new Coke machine will generate long and heated debate that often remains unresolved by the end of the meeting. A little thought suggests a number of reasons for the CMS. One is that taking a position on big issues may be seen as risky by the individual participants, so reluctance is natural. Saying something that might counter the stance of higher management or special consultants may not serve to raise one’s status or acceptance within the group. Another possible reason is that the range of ideas on large matters that affect the organization as a whole may naturally be more narrow than a local matter that affects everyone rather immediately. Every participant is likely to have a different viewpoint and it is easy to take a strong position without going out on a limb.

Managers will recognize the Coke machine syndrome and deal with it appropriately. Out of control, it can waste much valuable time on unimportant matters and create disruptive contention in the group. On the other hand, it can be used skillfully to provide an opportunity for a group to loosen up or warm up to deal with more important things or to produce a feeling of universal participation and group cohesion.