What is the point of meetings?
Meetings are a form of communication. In contrast to emails or chat, meetings are an arranged face-to-face communication through a synchronous assembly.
Meetings were the primary form of human communication for nearly all of our existence—communication could only happen when people gathered. Writing was the first significant movement in communication. We are no longer required to gather at the same time and place to communicate, but it was slow—too slow to get work done when you could have meetings instead. But that does not make meetings an inherently effective form of communication.
The 1900s brought us the postal services we continue to use today. Commercial radios and televisions followed in the early 1900s. The late 1900s introduced the world to the fax machine, Telecommunications companies, personal computers, the Internet, email, the World Wide Web, and software. The early 2000s brought the world online collaboration and Social Media.
These are all extremely new forms of communication available to all of us. But seemingly, the norm still defaults to meetings, that again, are not an inherently effective form of communication. But the idea that we can communicate without being in the same time and place through writing is also one of the oldest forms of communication.
Most communication is seemingly hearsay—reducing communication to mere noise under the guise of “meetings” where people who are expected to agree, end up at very different points around the target.
This is not good communication.
What does good communication look like?
Good communication has nothing to do with being in the same time or place—calendars have nothing to do with communication.
Communication is a process. In the scope of work and business, communication has one goal: to put things out into the world that produce value and capture a fraction of that value.
Communication, in this context, is an ego trap. Most people fail to realize that communication is not about you—it’s about the people you seek to serve.
If you fail to put things out into the world that produce value and capture a fraction of that value, you’ve failed at communication.
Great companies and people, therefore, ascribe unarguable value to communication and persistently aspire to communicate better.
June 9, 2004, Jeff Bezos, now famously, banned PowerPoint at Amazon, giving his reason why in a succinct email.
Well structured, narrative text is what we’re after rather than just text. If someone builds a list of bullet points in word, that would be just as bad as powerpoint.
The reason writing a 4 page memo is harder than “writing” a 20 page powerpoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what, and how things are related.
Powerpoint-style presentations somehow give permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the innerconnectedness of ideas.
The traditional kind of corporate meeting starts with a presentation. Somebody gets up in front of the room and presents with a powerpoint presentation, some type of slide show. In our view you get very little information, you get bullet points. This is easy for the presenter, but difficult for the audience. And so instead, all of our meetings are structured around a 6 page narrative memo.
When you have to write your ideas out in complete sentences, complete paragraphs it forces a deeper clarity. [We don’t read the memos in advance because] time doesn’t come from nowhere. This way you know everyone has the time. The author gets the nice warm feeling of seeing their hard work being read.
If you have a traditional PowerPoint presentation, executives interrupt. If you read the whole 6 page memo, on page 2 you have a question but on on page 4 that question is answered.
And so that is what we do, we just sit and read.
He further explains in Amazon’s 2017 Letter to Shareholders.
We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon. Instead, we write narratively structured six-page memos. We silently read one at the beginning of each meeting in a kind of “study hall.” Not surprisingly, the quality of these memos varies widely. 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.
Here’s what we’ve figured out. Often, when a memo isn’t great, it’s not the writer’s inability to recognize the high standard, but instead a wrong expectation on scope: they mistakenly believe a high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more! They’re trying to perfect a handstand in just two weeks, and we’re not coaching them right. The great memos are written and re-written, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind. They simply can’t be done in a day or two. The key point here is that you can improve results through the simple act of teaching scope – that a great memo probably should take a week or more.
Great companies and people ascribe unarguable value to communication and persistently aspire to communicate better.
Documents of this sort demand the writing of full sentences and paragraphs and require the writer to think the ideas through.
If you communicate well, the production of value takes care of itself. If you fail to communicate, no value is ever produced.
Therefore, a good meeting is when time is spent in dialogue to create or capture greater value than what participants could achieve elsewhere.
Elsewhere is critical here. For the first example, five people in a room for an hour is not a one-hour meeting–it’s a five-hour meeting. For the second example, a meeting often interrupts work—work designed to create value—and therefore needlessly stops value creation, often for negligent reasons. Third, speaking is only directly valuable for those synchronously attending. If you want to produce more value, communicate without calendars. There’s a time and place for everything, but most forms of value creation are not in the live performance we like to call “meetings”. Speaking does not allow the function of time to revise and raise its value. Writing helps everyone—including people who couldn’t make it, and future employees who join years from now.
Meetings, arguments at whiteboards, late-night hacking sessions, discussions over lunch: the creation of value continues to rely heavily on speaking in many contexts. For many, life is mostly spoken, not written.
But we’re starting to realize that much of the time we spend “communicating” are violent attacks on value creation. Everything from everyone all the time is too much.
And the tides are turning.
Where value is created
In 2018, Jeff Bezos participated in a fireside chat at the Air, Space and Cyber Conference. In it, he describes the importance of acknowledging that there are two types of decisions. The first type of decision you can walk through the door, and if it turns out you made the wrong decision, you turn around, come back, and the consequence of that misstep is small. The second type of decision is really hard to reverse course once you walk through that door. It’s going to be expensive, or impossible, and time-consuming to reverse that decision. You have to get those decisions right–high-consequence decisions, these decisions should be made deliberately, carefully, slowly.
At Amazon, I find myself on those decisions. I’m the chief slowdown officer. I slow those decisions down. I say, “No, I want to see this one more way,” and the team that’s working on it rolls their eyes. I’ve already seen it 18 ways, but I thought of a 19th way and I want to see it. That’s correct. For a high-consequence, irreversible decision, you owe it to your teammates to make those decisions.
But, as he goes on to explain, it’s important to create “multiple paths to yes.” When you have a hierarchy that requires ideas to get your boss to greenlight that idea and then your boss’s boss needs to greenlight that idea and then your boss’s boss’s boss needs to greenlight that idea–you want a large number of high judgement people empowered to greenlight things, you want multiple paths to yes. You want a system where a junior member with a good idea can be told no by the first five people and somehow still go pursue that idea.
He goes on to explain that value is created from experimentation, and failure is a requirement of experimentation–if you know the outcome it’s not an experiment. He then explores two different types of failure. The first type of failure, he explains, is building the one hundred and fifty first fulfillment center and screwing it up–that’s not the kind of failure we’re seeking.
We want failures where we’re trying to do something new, untested, never proven–that’s a real experiment. They come in all scale sizes. And you need to teach people that those two kinds of failure are different.
Value comes from many places. Bringing something that’s not new to you, but is new to the people you seek to serve does create value. But creating outsized value comes from outsized innovation. It comes from deliberately refusing to deliver the status quo. And to do that, you have to experiment–you have to try things that might not work, because if you knew it would work it wouldn’t be an experiment.
Meetings do not inherently create value. Creating value has nothing to do with meetings. Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs banned Powerpoint because they wanted to create new value. And new value can’t be creating from non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks performed while distracted. They recognized that value is created by creating the circumstances for people to work in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes their cognitive capabilities to their limit.
The goal is not to have meetings. The goal is to create value.
For some types of problems, working with someone else at the proverbial shared whiteboard can push you deeper than if you were working alone. The presence of the other party waiting for your next insight—be it someone physically in the same room or collaborating with you virtually—can short-circuit the natural instinct to avoid depth.
– Cal Newport, Deep Work (2016)
Meetings that shouldn’t be meetings
- Status updates
- Kickoffs and planning meetings
- Moving work forward
- Reviews, feedback requests, and approvals
- Meetings not everyone can make
Most often, we seem to think we need meetings when something isn’t clear. But understanding comes from being able to simplify the concept—and communicating that doesn’t involve calendars.
If you’re going to have meetings, end meetings with a reflection for continuous improvement.
When everything is still fresh, solicit the input from the team members. Here are a few examples of the reflection questions you can use by the end of the meeting:
- How clear was the meeting agenda?
- How well did we distribute the time for each agenda time?
- How well did we allocate time for decision-making?
- How well did everyone stay on topic?
- How effective was the process?
Collect the input and commit to the improvement needed for your next meeting.
For those who truly care about deep work, simply don’t have meetings.
“Meetings as a last resort” fights the affective death spiral of meetings–where meetings are held in higher and higher regard, where meetings are held for meetings sake, where meetings merely spawn more meetings.