Every leadership meeting at Amazon starts the same way: complete and utter silence for up to 30 minutes. Employees remain silent while reading an in-depth, six-page memo. Only when everyone is finished does the meeting truly begin. It’s a strange approach to meetings, but it’s hugely useful.
For new employees, Amazon’s meetings can seem utterly alien. But once they’re over the initial shock, employees learn to love the format because it removes a lot of friction from meetings. Some business leaders took on this approach for their remote workforce even during the pandemic by sharing memos ahead of video meetings. Attendees are more engaged, informed, and less distracted—something facilitators everywhere dream about. But these efficient meetings are somewhat of a rarity.
Across the world, millions of meetings are derailed each day from the friction caused by poor structures, bad habits, and malfunctioning technology. As we saw with Amazon, good meetings don’t happen by accident; they require careful forethought and planning. Organisers need to think critically about the challenges they face and take steps to mitigate them. This is especially true with virtual meetings as we continue to work remotely, where effective discussion relies on everything going right.
Here are some of the things we learnt from influential companies about how to run better meetings.
Control the number of attendees
Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, was the master of meeting sizes. He was unrelenting when it came to enforcing the small-meeting rule. Ken Segall, Jobs’ long-term advertising partner, recalled just how blunt Jobs could be. One morning, Jobs arrived at Segall’s ad agency for his bi-weekly update meeting. Jobs’ eyes swept the room, taking note of those in attendance. Then he spotted someone new who he immediately questioned.
If meetings were growing too large, Jobs wasn’t afraid to ask people to leave—and he was right to. Robert Sutton, professor of management science at Stanford University, analysed the effect of group size on decision making. He discovered the sweet spot was between five and eight meeting participants. Veer outside the limits and you’d undermine the work.
Establish a clear purpose
Ineffective meetings are often cited as the most frustrating—and that comes from the structure, or lack thereof, implemented by organisers. In large companies, organisers will often book meeting rooms and invite attendees long before determining the purpose of the actual meeting. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg experienced this firsthand as his company grew from fledgling startup into Silicon Valley unicorn. His engineers and project managers would arrange meetings without deciding in advance what they wanted to achieve. After the allotted time had elapsed, the attendees would leave feeling frustrated and without having achieved anything. In response, Zuckerberg instituted a new rule. Before booking a meeting, organisers had to ask themselves one simple question: Is this meeting designed to make a decision or have a discussion?
While most businesses will need more than two meeting archetypes, Zuckerberg’s advice to define the purpose of your meeting before sitting down is incredibly valuable.
Give everyone a chance to contribute
One of the key purposes of a meeting is to bring together all different voices and encourage decision-making through conversation. But that’s often easier said than done. When Dominic Price joined Atlassian as head of research and development, he quickly discovered meetings weren’t working. “We realised that there was a situation where the alpha, most senior, or most opinionated person dominated a meeting.” But for Price, whose job relied on other people generating fresh ideas, this posed a problem. Price’s work required cognitive diversity, and when one or two loud voices dominated a meeting, that diversity wasn’t there.
Helmut, a squeaky rubber chicken, was an organisational staple in Atlassian’s design team. During a meeting, whenever a designer was speaking for too long, the meeting’s facilitator would squeeze Helmut and move the conversation on. Price borrowed Helmut and began using it in his meetings—and it worked. This method might not be appropriate for every meeting, but more generic facilitation aids could be. Consider allocating a set speaking time for each attendee or implementing a more understated warning signal like a hand gesture or coloured card.
Use tools that make it easy to collaborate
As working from anywhere is now more prominent than ever, these rules need to translate into the virtual environment. Creating good meeting structures is only one part of the puzzle; we also need robust technology. Without the right tech in place, meetings quickly become productivity hurdles.
Modern workers used to simple, seamless, and instantaneous communication simply won’t tolerate the wrong tools. If you choose cloud collaboration software that unifies message, video and phone and enables effortless movement between tools, you can run impactful meetings and do great work.
Originally published Jan 15, 2021, updated Apr 15, 2021