5 unconventional ways to run magical meetings

According to corporate folklore, Amazon overlord Jeff Bezos has several hacks to make meetings more bearable. The big one is that he starts all meetings with 30 minutes of silence. 

The purpose of this enforced ‘quiet time’ is to read a detailed memo put together by whoever’s hosting the meeting. Why? To make sure everyone has time to understand what’s to be talked about, gather their thoughts, and focus on the precise purpose of the meeting. 

It’s an intriguing idea, and a far cry from many people’s experiences of ‘back-to-back’ meetings in their work lives. Many knowledge workers complain they don’t have time to pee, let alone prepare for each meeting.

So should you adopt the Bezos way? What else can you do to make meetings more bearable? Let’s explore some ideas…

Do you need a meeting at all? 

In modern work, we are nearly always in a state of communication. Email, Slack, Teams – they’re on all the time, and they don’t stop pinging. So pay attention to when a meeting is a must, and when it’s a bust on your time. 

Could the meeting you’re about to put in the calendar be an email? Google the question ‘Do I need a meeting’ and you’ll find a host of brutal flow charts where the answer is invariably ‘no’. 

Reserve meetings for when you need to thrash out complex ideas, and you genuinely need other people’s input. Don’t invite others if it’s going to muddy the waters on something you already know. Do invite others if you really want their input, and you can clearly articulate to them what you want out of the discussion. 

Ideally, you’ll be able to tie your decision to documented ways of working for your company (if you’re running a company, this is your cue to scurry off and write a ‘When to call meetings’ section in your Ways of Working document).

Keep it short

We wrote about Parkinson’s Law a few weeks ago – the human tendency to drag a task out over the time you have available to do it. This is ESPECIALLY true of meetings. 

Sheryl Sandberg keeps meticulous lists of things to discuss at each meeting. When she gets to the bottom of the list, she tears out the page and declares the meeting over. If it only took 10 minutes, so much the better. 

Quick meetings keep minds focused, and force people to keep extraneous thoughts to themselves. The result is quicker decision making. 

Peter Bregman, executive leadership coach, experimented with keeping all meetings to 30 minutes. He wrote in the HBR about it, but the summary is: “The downside? I haven’t seen one yet.”

Keep it small

Do you like pizza? Well you might like the sound of Jeff Bezos’s Two Pizza Rule – until you find out that it is metaphorical pizza, not the actual deep pan stuffed crust kind of pizza. 

Basically, according to Bezos, meetings should never get so big that two pizzas couldn’t feed everyone in attendance. 

How that played out when Jeff was in his muscle-building phase, we don’t know. 

Steve Jobs was similar in keeping meeting invite lists ruthlessly small. He was known to throw people out of meetings if he didn’t know their exact reason for being there. 

Time-box the chit chat

This one comes from within – it’s something we do at FLOWN. As a remote team, water cooler moments are non-existent, so being 100% business on all meetings is soulless and depressing. 

So, we make sure we indulge in five minutes of fun at the start of our daily stand up. Each day is led by a nominated individual, and activities vary between simple ice-breaker questions to video-assisted games. 

We’re careful to keep it to five minutes, but those five minutes are important if we’re to bring our whole selves to work and learn about each other. We also find that it makes the transition to business talk easier and immediate. 

Appeal to emotions

An amazingly simple way to make everybody love you: aim to finish your meeting five minutes early. It’s a small thing, but give people respite between meetings or even five extra minutes to read emails will surprise and delight your fellow meeters. 

What will you do with that five minutes? Immediately start the follow-up. Send a summary of the decisions made and the actions agreed, and immediately schedule any follow up meetings or check ins. 

This will make everybody feel that their time in your meeting was well spent. Give people the sense that your project has momentum, and they’ll feel good about working with you on it. 

Nice meeting you

So, that’s a couple of thought starters for if you’re feeling beaten down by meeting overload, and want a better way to do things. Maybe you’ve got some of your own techniques and rituals for making meetings work in your work? Share them with us – we’d love to hear them.

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