Some human inventions flash into being, get a little polish and then are pretty much left alone, their users generally satisfied, or at least not so dissatisfied that they attempt to come up with an alternative. No one tries to build a better hankie, a more comforting cuddle or a dinner plate “that really works”. Yet the search for the perfect business meeting seems never-ending. The caravan instead of the boardroom, the rubber chicken that bestows the right to speak: you name it, it has been tried and generally found to suck. Now Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, has had a go, creating what he calls “the weirdest meeting culture you will ever encounter”.
Weird? Maybe, though other words that spring to mind include “anal” and “stultifying”. As Bezos told the audience at the George W Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, he has banned the PowerPoint presentations that dominate most commercial meetings. Instead, some poor devil must spend a week or more preparing “a six-page, narratively structured memo” full of “real sentences” rather than bullet points. Everyone else must then spend the first half-hour of the meeting silently – and publicly – pondering it, before moving on to a debate. Bezos calls this “a kind of study hall”.
“Not surprisingly, the quality of these memos varies widely,” Bezos admits. “Some have the clarity of angels singing. They are brilliant and thoughtful and set up the meeting for high-quality discussion. Sometimes they come in at the other end of the spectrum …”
If this sounds like your idea of hell, don’t panic. Some of the finest minds in business are working on alternatives.
Get in touch with your feelings
“This is quite pervasive in organisations now,” says Prof André Spicer from Cass Business School at City, University of London. “They might ask people to reflect for a few minutes in a meeting before making a decision. Or they’ll ask people to turn inwards, and think about what their own feelings are telling them.” Evidence suggests that injecting more mindfulness can help alleviate individual anxiety, and help people focus better in meetings and lose the irrelevant information.
“The danger of it, though,” says Spicer, “is that it gets treated as a way to cover up more systemic issues. For example, the Department of Health introduced a mindfulness programme to deal with health and wellness issues in the department. The truth was that the problems there were with endemic restructuring and extreme working hours – the mindfulness just extended meetings and the working day.”
Take a long lunch
“The death of the long lunch is a tragedy for businesses,” says Spicer. “Many organisations had lunch together in cafeterias where everyone stopped and ate together and talked. There is research by Humanize, which studies social networks and work, that shows that people who go to lunch and sit in fairly large groups tend to do a lot better in the company, simply because they are building up networks and finding out what is going on in the business. Bring back lunch!”
Actually, says Emma Sinclair, the co-founder of EnterpriseAlumni, there is a lot to be said for the regular company-wide catchup, even if it comes in the form of a traditional meeting. “People do need to feel included. And a bit of consistency is good.”
Bring in the vigilantes
“One PayPal executive, David Sacks, used to burst into meeting rooms like a prohibition-era cop and ask what people were meeting about,” says Bruce Daisley, the European vice-president at Twitter and the host of the Eat Sleep Work Repeat podcast. “If it wasn’t any good, he would stop the meeting right then and there. I love this idea of superhero-style vigilantes closing meetings down. Imagine if the burden of having a meeting was that at any point you’d have to explain what the meeting was about. Brilliant! If all of us knew we would be held to account for the cost of a meeting and the amount of people’s time we are taking up, our perspective would be different. The meeting is taking all the fun out of our jobs because we are so scared of not being busy. But sitting at your desk and thinking is an important part of the job.”
Remember time is money
Ever sat in a meeting and wondered how much it was costing the company in terms of salaries? Tools such as Harvard Business Review’s business meeting cost calculator will put a figure on it. Spicer recommends a meeting budget. “If you want to invite a member of staff to your meeting, it will get taken off your budget. The cost of inviting loads of people to come along and listen to a PowerPoint presentation actually becomes valued, and you have to think: ‘Do we actually need this person there?’”
Don’t fall for gimmicks
Everyone wants meetings to be shorter, but stunts pulled in some workplaces such as making attendees hold the plank, do situps, speak against a timer or put money in a charity box if they overrun are counterproductive and, frankly, irritating. “I’m a bit suspicious of any of that jiggery-pokery,” says Stefan Stern, the co-author of Myths of Management. “That doesn’t feel like work to me. If you’re trying to achieve something from your meeting, you need to be focusing on the meat of the matter.” Rather than your aching muscles, for example.
“All this show-and-tell stuff turns the meeting into a spectacle, rather than something productive,” agrees Spicer. However, he adds, standing meetings are effective at cutting meeting times. Walking and talking (favoured by Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama) has also been shown to help people work better. “Marily Oppezzo at Stanford University has done a lot of research in this area,” says Daisley. “She shows how meetings can engage divergent thought – so they help people come up with ideas, although not necessarily narrow them down.”
Lock up your iPhones
“It’s a great idea to get people to check in their phones and laptops,” says Spicer. “Unless they are actually being used, not having them helps people focus their attention on what is actually going on in the room.” That doesn’t mean it’s not awkward, however. “I recently did some work with senior managers at a bank and they were forced to put their phones in sealed envelopes. They were constantly looking over to the cupboard where their phones were. As soon as the first break came, they ripped them open like they were crack addicts who had just seen a bag of crack. But once they had actually got focused on a task, they got a lot more done. One of the basic principles of productivity is that we are terrible at multitasking, so we need to remove as many distractions from meetings as possible.”
Get a grip on numbers
Another Bezos rule: he won’t call a meeting, or even attend one, where two pizzas couldn’t feed the entire group. “Meetings now are easier than ever to arrange,” says Daisley. This means they can often become “very low-quality exchanges of ideas and powerplay” if they are not considered properly and numbers kept under control. The solution is to “value the introverts”. “Most of modern work has been around celebrating the extrovert – brainstorming meetings, presentations, open-plan offices,” he says. “Performance art has become part of our job. But when you look into how a creative idea is formed, it is normally by individual thinking and one-to-one conversation. As Susan Cain says in her book Quiet, the truth about the best collaborations is that they are in smaller groups – it’s more Lennon and McCartney than loads of people in an open-plan room.”
Be rude if you have to
“Walk out of a meeting or drop off a call as soon as it is obvious you aren’t adding value,” the billionaire CEO of Tesla, Elon Musk, has said. “It is not rude to leave; it is rude to make someone stay and waste their time.” Of course, it is probably easier to get away with this when you are a fantastically rich company boss rather than an underpaid middle manager.
Just say no
“Is your meeting really necessary?” asks Stern. “As the management consultant Peter Drucker put it, ‘One either meets or one works.’” Daisley says we should abolish half of all meetings. “If you go into a meeting and somebody asks: ‘Has anyone got anything for today’s agenda?’, that should tell you that there is no point to it. We live in a world where the quality of our work is being appraised by others, by our bosses, so we never want to appear as if we’re not working hard. So when a meeting comes up that we are responsible for, we all want to show that we have packed agendas. We need to lose the fear of standing people down for meetings and cancel them.”
How do you do it? Maybe cite some evidence. “We’re starting to realise that interruptions and distractions are the curse of getting anything done,” says Daisley. “We need to permit people to have quiet spaces. In Cal Newport’s book Deep Work, he argues that anything of any value is created only by a period of isolated concentration.” Something to send back on your next calendar invite.
Originally Published in The Guardian