Pretend you’re called into a project debriefing in the middle of your day. You enter the meeting room, and several things are going on: two colleagues chatting about weekend plans, three colleagues working on laptops, and the meeting host is late. When the meeting starts, the host announces that the project has been pushed back a month.
Then the dreaded happens: some of the participants start chatting about projects that don’t apply to half of the room. Now you’re stuck listening to conversations that are irrelevant to you, and you’re thinking about how your to-do list is piling up by the minute. Sound familiar?
Too many meetings are productivity black holes that fail to deliver tangible results. A major challenge for organizations is perfecting meetings to minimize friction and meet business objectives. The question becomes, how does your organization do this?
Some of the largest organizations in the world have implemented strategies (some more peculiar than others) to master their meetings. Let’s see what lessons we can learn from them.
1. Amazon: Start meetings with 30 minutes of silent reading
Every leadership meeting at Amazon starts with a 30-minute silent reading session where attendees all read through a memo written by the host. It might sound absurd, but it’s one of the fundamental changes to meetings at Amazon that Jeff Bezos credits as “probably the smartest thing we ever did.”
The idea is that participants (especially executives) don’t always have time to debrief before a meeting and often go in blind. So instead of bluffing their way through meetings, participants can take the time to understand the context of them. This practice makes for much more engaged attendees and, ultimately, highly productive conversations.
“We read those memos, silently, during the meeting. It’s like a study hall. Everybody sits around the table, and we read silently, for usually about half an hour, however long it takes us to read the document. And then we discuss it.”
2. Apple: Keep meetings between just five and eight participants
Studies like this one by the Harvard Business Review consistently show that meetings are most productive when they’re kept to under eight participants—and Steve Jobs was adamant in keeping it that way at Apple.
For Jobs, every participant in a meeting is critical—if someone new joined a meeting, they were either deemed essential or asked to leave. This cutthroat approach nurtured quality thinking and ensured that the most creative minds were always on the same page.
Meetings with too many participants run several risks, including:
- Not everyone can contribute to discussions.
- The loudest speakers dominate conversations.
- A lack of substantial back-and-forth debates.
- Side conversations between participants.
- Participants work on other tasks.
- Soft-spoken participants might be too anxious to contribute.
- Tough decisions never reach a consensus.
- Some people will show up late.
3. Google Ventures: Use a physical timer to keep meeting participants focused
Jake Knapp, a former design partner at Google Ventures, implemented something to their meetings that you probably last saw in a third-grade math class: a Time Timer. As Jake mentions in a blog post for Google Ventures, this physical timer makes meetings instantly better.
So how can a simple, old-fashioned device our parents used for timing a pot roast elevate the meeting experience? When you think about it, Google Ventures’ secret weapon isn’t actually the timer itself, but our innate sense of urgency.
By placing it in a clearly visible spot in the meeting room, the timer keeps participants aware of how scarce and time-blocked their meeting is. As a result, participants take time more seriously and jump right into the discussion.
4. Atlassian: Set boundaries for long speaking times
Meetings need as many disparate voices as possible, but the reality is meetings are typically dominated by just one or two loud voices while the rest are too polite to interrupt. As a result, topics get easily carried away and decisions are made based on a small number of opinions. Organizations need to disrupt meeting monologues and encourage more participation from others.
For Atlassian, the answer to this challenge was a rubber chicken named Helmut with an obnoxiously hilarious squeak. Whenever a participant spoke for too long, the meeting’s facilitator would squeeze Helmut, and the ensuing squeak was enough to calm the meeting down and move on. Once they discovered how effective Helmut was, the team bought an entire flock of rubber chickens.
5. Facebook: Define the purpose of each meeting beforehand
It’s not uncommon for managers to book meetings in anticipation of a large project or ask, but what happens when the project gets delayed but the meeting still moves forward? That’s exactly what Mark Zuckerberg wanted to avoid.
Zuckerberg instituted a new rule for meetings at Facebook: Before organizers book a meeting, they have to decide if it was a discussion or decision meeting. In a discussion meeting, the facilitator frames the conversation and fosters a healthy debate to brainstorm ideas. In a decision meeting, the goal is to reach a consensus on any given topic.
Both meeting archetypes have specific guidelines to follow. The clarity helps minimize friction in every meeting and keeps everybody on track.
|Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook.
We try to be clear about our goal when we sit down for a meeting—are we in the room to make a decision or to have a discussion?
6. RingCentral: Perfect your online meetings with a unified platform for messaging, calling, and video meetings
As technology and work culture continue to shift our meetings online, fewer people are attending meetings in offices. The challenge for organizations with distributed workforces, then, is to perfect the online meeting experience. This starts with the technology.
A major friction point for online meetings is disparate communications apps. Say your team is discussing a project in an email thread. Once your team reaches a milestone a week later, the team manager wants to conduct a meeting to discuss next steps. When the meeting occurs, unfortunately, everyone on the team has forgotten or lost the discussion in the piles of other emails they have. The result is a loss of context—and you waste precious time getting participants caught up.
What if everyone in your organization had team messaging, calling, and video meetings all in a single, unified platform? Meetings could start in the team messaging app and instantly move to an online meeting with just the click of a button. The meeting window pops up right next to the text discussion, providing the context (messaging history, files, and links) participants need to jump head-first into the conversation.
What’s the best approach for you?
While rubber chickens and food timers might work for some organizations, the big picture is to find your own cadence when it comes to perfecting your organization’s meetings. It could be setting a timer for each person to speak, incorporating a unified communications platform, or even establishing meeting archetypes with clearly defined guidelines for each one. Every organization (and team) is different, so take time to consider which approaches will work best for you.
Learn more about effective meeting strategies in The Productivity Battleground: How Meeting Friction Drains Team Collaboration.
Originally published Apr 07, 2020, updated Jan 18, 2023