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Effective Meeting Tactics employed by Execs at LinkedIn, Amazon and Asana

By Janet Choi · October 16, 2014
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This post is adapted from iDoneThis' new ebook, “What You Don't Know About Management“.

Why do we continue to have bad meetings? They cost precious brainpower, time, energy, and productivity.

Just take a look at these numbers:

  • 11 million meetings take place every day in the U.S., says Harvard Business School professor Nancy Koehn in an interview with Marketplace. That's 4 billion meetings a year.

  • Over 50 percent of people say that half the meetings they attend are unproductive, notes Koehn. That’s 2 billion ineffective meetings a year!

  • Most meetings, two-thirds of them to be precise, end before decisions are reached, according to Bain & Company.

So why do we keep repeating this unhealthy, unproductive behavior? Koehn explains the simple reason why even the smartest of us carry on holding fruitless meetings: habit.

Bad habits are beyond reason, ingrained behavior we often don’t even notice happening. But people overcome bad habits all the time by consistently trying to improve rather than repeat them, and it’s irresponsible to continue practices that doesn’t actually move your organization or your people forward.

"The least productive people are usually the ones who are most in favor of holding meetings."- Thomas Sowell

Changing our bad meeting habits means thinking critically about their purpose. Meetings aren’t for discussing information that can be documented like status updates, spreadsheets, or bug reports. They’re for discussing, as Pinterest's head of engineering Michael Lopp puts it, “what’s important, what you care about this week, this month and this year. What’s working and what isn’t and what’s going to be fixed.”

Meetings, when done well, are a helpful tool to have constructive conversations, work through problems, and make plans and decisions—and do so face to face. There are some common solutions to fixing the bad meeting habit, such as sticking to stated starting and ending times, agendas, and plans; going into meetings with specific goals; and limiting who is in the room.

These three lesser-known approaches help increase the quality rather than quantity of your meetings.

Set a Meetings Cadence

An over-reliance on meetings is a consequence of treating them like an unlimited, free resource even though they come at a cost. Part of their pervasiveness is due to how easy it is to thoughtlessly call a meeting. When scheduled indiscriminately, meetings can be supremely disruptive and damaging to your productivity and flow.

So consider some constraints: limit their scheduling. Designate specific days as no-meeting or meeting days. When you set constraints around meeting frequency, people’s attention can click into focus.

Take Twitter and Square co-founder Jack Dorsey, who points to the stress that comes from the unexpected. Setting a cadence in your schedule keeps some of that tension at bay. He sets aside Mondays for meetings. So too does Jon Steinberg, president and COO of Buzzfeed, who was inspired by Dorsey to set a meeting cadence. He considers Mondays his “internal meeting day” in addition to deliberately scheduling Tuesdays and Thursdays as “no meeting” days.

Take that company-wide. Asana, for example, has No Meeting Wednesdays. Co-founder Dustin Moskovitz explains that everyone needs some structure and cadence to their time to enable focus.

The justification is well articulated in a now famous Paul Graham article: Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule. The gist is that makers suffer greatly from interrupts in their flow time. Managers are generally used to having a schedule-driven day, so it’s easy for them to throw a disruption into somebody else’s calendar. Makers also do this to each other. And unlike many companies, at Asana we generally want our managers to be makers some of the time as well, so they need a structure that ensures they get some flow time too.

Write Stuff Down and Scrap Presentations

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos starts his senior executives meetings off with absolutely no talking. Before any conversation or discussion begins, everyone sits for 30 minutes in total silence, carefully reading six-page printed memos. Reading together in the meeting guarantees everyone’s undivided attention to the issues at hand, as material sent out in advance is rarely read in advance.

The real magic happens before the meeting ever starts, when the author is writing the memo. Writing forces memo authors to actually reason through what they want to present, spend time puzzling through tough questions, and formulate clear if not persuasive arguments. It’s no surprise that Bezos also banned PowerPoint presentations in meetings, which does away with simplistic and fuzzy bullet-point logic.

As Bezos explains: “Full sentences are harder to write. […] They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.” The imposition of writing as a medium turns self-discipline and personal reflection into a distributed process.

It makes sense that Amazon executives call these six-page memos “narratives”. There’s a story: a conflict to resolve and conclusion of solutions, innovation, and happy customers to reach — providing the meeting with direction.

Specifically, the narrative has four main elements, as described by Pete Abilla, who worked at Amazon in 2003:

[The six-page narratives are structured] like a dissertation defense:

1. The context or question.

2. Approaches to answer the question - by whom, by which method, and their conclusions

3. How is your attempt at answering the question different or the same from previous approaches

4. Now what? - that is, what’s in it for the customer, the company, and how does the answer to the question enable innovation on behalf of the customer?

Even with time set off to read materials, the meeting can then focus on generating valuable discourse: providing shared context, diving deeper on particularly cogent data and insights, and perhaps most importantly, having a meaningful debate.

Start with Wins

While the conventional wisdom to improve meetings is to make them shorter, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner spends time starting his weekly staff meetings with a novel move. Before getting down to focused business talk, Weiner requires every person in the room to share their “wins”—“one personal victory and one professional achievement”—from the past week.

This unconventional technique harnesses the progress principle—the fact that making progress is the most powerful motivator. Sharing wins is a motivating way to start your meeting, focusing people by putting them into a positive frame of mind to tackle issues and talk constructively. So often, meetings turn into unproductive, repetitious complaints.

Negativity and setbacks are overwhelming on the mind, not only interrupting and detracting from feelings of progress but tending to stick around much longer. It’s no wonder why meetings can devolve into grumbling sessions.

Everyone needs a good vent about work sometimes, but a meeting isn’t usually the place to do it. Celebrating and sharing your wins combats that negativity bias by establishing a tone of positivity and injects useful energy in the room to fuel everyone to delve into issues and solve problems with a positive frame of mind.

More Meeting Tips from Execs

Here are a few more quick suggestions for better, fewer meetings:

Articulate purpose.

Make sure each meeting has a clear purpose, an agenda, and action steps to follow through as a result. Put this in writing.

Don’t default to meetings.

Avoid them altogether if your intent is just to circulate information. For example, you can move status updates from standup meetings to asynchronous communication tools. Save meetings for when discussion, interaction, and conversation are needed.

Do a meetings audit.

Measure how much time is spent on information, updates, logistics, and admin that can be accomplished with other methods and tools versus how much time is actually spent solving problems, collaborative planning, and brainstorming. Does your audience have to be there for the purpose to be fulfilled?

Stick to the agenda by making the process visible.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg keeps a spiral notebook with discussion points and action items and crosses them out as they’re discussed. This display of the process is a shield against tangents or rambling.

Set time limits.

Parkinson’s law that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion” holds true for meetings as well, so limiting that time available will prevent the kind of meeting creep that takes over your schedule. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, for example, has 10-minute meeting windows available to book.

Limit distractions—including comfort.

Check smartphones at the door or hold your meeting standing up to secure people’s attention and focus. Try setups that prevent a kind of classroom environment in which you’re sitting at your desk, checked out and not paying attention to the teacher.

Thomas Sowell's observation that "the least productive people are usually the ones who are most in favor of holding meetings," while funny, can feel painfully true. But meetings—like any tool—are actually productive when wielded wisely. What tips or approaches do you have to cut down on and focus meetings?

Keep reading about how to advance your career while working happier instead of harder in a free eBook, “What You Don't Know About Management“ .

Credits: Meeting photo courtesy Highways Agency

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