Think big, but have small, short, and focused meetings

Noah Brier of Percolate recently posted the company’s meeting rules online:

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After a torrent of commentary on Twitter, he decided to post a little more qualification of some of the rules. For example, it’s ok to use a laptop in a meeting it you’re explicitly taking meeting notes, or actually assigning tasks to people. As Noah puts it,

If their computer is open and they’re not presenting or creating tasks/taking notes, ask them to close it. If they need to be checking mail or working on something else, they probably shouldn’t be at the meeting.

Some people on Twitter asked if the person who called the meeting is responsible for enforcing the rules and the answer is no. Obviously they’re responsible for stating the purpose of the meeting, but everyone is responsible for the others. If, for example, you’re leaving a meeting without clarity around who is responsible for next steps it should be called out regardless of whether it was your meeting or not.

I especially like the ‘everyone is responsible’ aspect of enforcing the rules, apropos of the post I wrote this weekend about accountability (see Work skills for the future: accountability). The emphasis that meeting should lead to action is solid, too, although I am  happier when tasks are taken on by participants rather that being ‘assigned’. But the action bias and the need for accountability is key.

Also, the rules read almost like a program: if (person=spectator) then eject(person).

I’ve written in the past about the meetings at Amazon, as required by Jeff Bezos, where the idea of a meeting’s purpose is carried to a high art (see Flipped meetings: Learning from Amazon’s meeting policy). Amazon turns the typical corporate meeting on it’s head, so that instead of a powerpoint the attendees read a six page ‘narrative’  that are structured like a dissertation defense (from a Quora answer by Pete Abilla, a former Amazonian):

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?

This is one way to make meetings shorter: by having the meeting organizer do more work, and then having the attendees get on the same page (or six pages) at the outset of the meeting.

I fear that most companies aren’t disciplined enough to take on this level of preparation, but I think that such effort is an indicator of high-performance.

Steve Jobs wanted to keep meetings as small as possible,  and following the ‘no spectators’ approach he was known to ask people to leave when he thought they were unnecessary to a meeting’s purpose. The reasoning behind the ‘fewest possible attendees’ rule, according to Ken Segall, who worked closely with Jobs for a decade, was to keep complexity  at bay. Or as Segall puts it,

Apple encourages big thinking but small everything else.

So, to summarize, meetings are best when

  • they are focused on as few issues as possible (optimally one),
  • those issues are clearly explained by the organizer (and narratively, not bullets),
  • when people focus on those issues exclusively for the time allotted,
  • the time is as short as possible,
  • they involve the smallest possible attendee list,
  • all decisions and necessary actions are noted,
  • and someone (or some set of people collectively) takes responsibility for each necessary action.

And optionally, while standing.