Especially during the pandemic, meetings have become the most dreadful way to spend time. There’s fascinating research suggesting that videoconferencing is much more taxing because being stared at for a prolonged period of time triggering our “prey effect.” Zoom fatigue is widespread and real, and it affects women disproportionately. Every opportunity to kill a meeting is thus, in my book, a welcome step.
In the companies where I’ve worked, and those that I advise, at least half of the meetings are what I’d describe as “status meetings.” One or more participants educate others on some project they’re working on; in the best case, there’s some back-and-forth - all the people being presented to are highly engaged and ask lots of questions, and a dialogue ensues. In the average case, at least half of the people in the room are uninterested in at least half of the conversation topics, and despite their best intentions, they doze off to email or Slack. They all, of course, then feel ashamed for not paying enough attention.
Interactions like this drain energy from everyone involved; and they’re the fault of the meeting organizer. Even more so, they’re your fault, dear leader, who’s set a culture where meetings are a way to solve problems. And as such, it’s on you to fix it, too.
Allow me to propose an approach: replace recurring meetings with recurring write-ups. Replace PowerPoint decks with Word documents. And in many cases, replace verbal feedback with comments in Google Docs.
First, replace recurring meetings with “one-pagers.” Do a blind poll of your colleagues: ask them what their worst, least productive 60 minutes of the past week were. They’ll likely say that it was some sort of a recurring meeting, probably one with more than 5 attendees. They dread the next occurrence of this meeting, and yet they can’t just skip it: it’s both about status (“I can’t have decisions made without me!”) and about information propagation (“One thing out of the hour-long meeting was actually useful last time!”)
The worst kind of recurring meetings is a meeting without an agenda, with more than 5 people present. Two out of these five will monopolize 20 minutes into a quasi-one-on-one. 10 minutes will be wasted waiting for one of the attendees that’s late from another meeting. 5 minutes will be spent on blank stares in the “what should we talked about / who called this meeting” awkwardness. Finally, someone will try to fill the void (usually, the boss’s right-hand person) with something seemingly important - usually, something about the status of some project. Everyone knows this conversation could have been an email… And yet, the motions continue week after week.
What if you, as a leader, set a different culture? What if you created an operating rhythm where each week, every one of your directs contributes to a weekly “one-pager” on key metrics, projects that launched, and stuff that’s being worked on? Make this write-up forcibly fit one page each week, with the font size and the margins fixed. Keep the format consistent; keep the deadlines strict (“Contribute by 5pm Monday or your stuff will not be included into the department-wide summary! I send one to my boss on Tuesday!”)
Since it’s just a one-pager, everyone will read it: so the goal of information dissemination around project status and KPIs will be solved. Since there’s no more need to discuss status, the weekly meeting can be about exception handling (“project X is late… how can we mitigate?”). If you set an expectation that everyone reads the one-pager on Tuesday morning, you can set your weekly staff meeting for Tuesday afternoon - and focus it on the issues identified in the comments.
Second, replace PowerPoint decks with documents. Amazon pioneered this principle, and Bezos is right: most decks favor the presenter, not the audience. They favor the eloquent, those who can put on a show - not those who prepare and know their stuff. Most decks don’t include enough context to be consumed offline / on readers’ own schedule: they require a meeting for the information exchange to happen. And finally, it’s very difficult to engage in a conversation about the material in the deck being presented - since interrupting the presenter mid-slides in a meeting of more than 10 (the optimal setting for broad information dissemination!) feels rude.
Follow the example set by Amazon. For each working session, status conversation, project plan - have the project owners write up a document and share it with the team in advance. That document should be a memo - a narrative using complete sentences, not a collection of bullet points. It doesn’t have to be an ultra-formalized six-pager like Amazon’s, but it should include standardized pieces that your culture demands: if it’s a status report, agreed-upon KPIs. If it’s a project plan, customer stories. If it’s a strategy document, competitive analysis. As a leader, it’s your job to enforce some template.
You can even choose to start the meeting from a 10-minute silent period, where folks who haven’t yet read the document have a chance to do so (and others can, with no shame, be on email). The discussion that’ll follow will be far, far more effective than following a PowerPoint deck.
Third, debate the minor stuff in Google Docs comments. I’ve been a fan of Google Docs because of one key feature: simultaneous editing and commenting. Your entire team can read the weekly one-pager, highlight relevant sections, and ask little questions right inline (“Did you talk to Joe about this?” / “Can I help connect you with this customer? I have an in”). If you set an example that interacting via comments is one way to go, you’ll discover that your team is able to engage on a dramatically higher number of topics with each other. And that details that used to get overlooked no longer are.
Things that I wouldn’t bring up in a presentation (too minor… not worth it to take up everyone’s time) are totally fair game in a Google Doc comment. Moreover, if a skip-level manager is asking about a minor aspect of someone’s work, that junior employee is over-joyed: look, the big boss cares about what I do!
A VERY important caveat here: do NOT engage in any sort of controversial conversations in these comments. Don’t ask philosophical/existential questions. This is not the right medium for those. This is what in-person interactions are for.
Further reading: some meetings are quite helpful and create lots of value; for those, here are the sins to avoid as a leader.