How to Run an Effective Meeting: Lessons from Pixar, Apple, and Amazon
Every day, millions of Americans lose precious minutes of their lives to meetings. Boring, unproductive meetings.
Harvard Business School professor Nancy Koehn estimates that Americans attend 11 million formal meetings every day, about 4 billion meetings a year. And over half of the people her team surveyed said the meetings were unproductive. Ouch.
Don’t despair just yet. Forward-thinking executives have found ways to make their meetings more productive, cost-effective, and efficient. Borrow some of their strategies for making meetings less of a timesuck:
To get the best ideas, invite candor and constructive criticism into your meeting room.
It’s a common refrain echoed in many corporate rooms around America: leave criticism and negative feedback at the door. The idea was first championed by Alex Osborn, an advertising executive who pioneered the brainstorm.
In his book “Your Creative Power” he writes, “Creativity is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom while discouragement often nips it in the bud.”
While it sounds good in theory, many researchers have argued that this approach often results in fewer ideas and less creativity. Ed Catmull, president of Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney, would agree.
Catmull has built a culture where people feel free to share their ideas, opinions and even criticisms. In his book “Creativity, Inc.”, Catmull writes that candor is the key to Pixar’s success. Rather than checking opinions and criticism at the door, Catmull encourages his team to embrace and share them.
He writes, “Candor could not be more crucial to our creative process. Why? Because early on, all of our movies suck. That’s a blunt assessment, I know, but I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the ﬁrst versions really are. I’m not trying to be modest or self-effacing. Pixar ﬁlms are not good at ﬁrst, and our job is to make them so–to go, as I say, ‘from suck to not-suck.’”
While Pixar president Ed Catmull uses the word candor to describe his meeting style, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s style could be described as confrontational. One of Amazon’s Leadership Principles sums it up: “Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting.”
Bezos is well known for hating “social cohesion”, our human tendency to seek agreement and consensus. Like Catmull, he encourages his employees to call out bad ideas, disagree, and challenge each other.
In your next meeting, encourage open dialogue and embrace candor (and maybe even a little conflict). Don’t be afraid to debate ideas, ask questions, and push ideas toward excellence.
Keep it small, smart, and simple. (Or, would two pizzas feed everyone in this meeting?)
In his book “Insanely Simple,” longtime Steve Jobs collaborator Ken Segall tells the story of a weekly meeting with Apple’s ad agency. Jobs had just begun the meeting when he noticed someone new. “Who are you?” he asked. When her answer didn’t suffice, Jobs replied, “I don’t think we need you in this meeting. Thanks.” As she collected her belongings, Jobs continued the meeting as if nothing had happened.
This principle of keeping meetings small is part of Jobs’ larger focus on Simplicity, one of the driving forces behind Apple. “When he called a meeting or reported to a meeting, his expectation was that everyone in the room would be an essential participant. Spectators were not welcome,” Segall writes.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos follows the Two Pizza Rule. When you’re creating a meeting invitation, consider the number of people you can feed with two pizzas. That’s the most you should invite.
The idea is that smaller teams can help reduce groupthink, wasted time, and watered down ideas. Keep it small, simple, and don’t let anyone go hungry.
Ban presentations and replace bullet points with narrative.
Jeff Bezos doesn’t have time for PowerPoint presentations. He’d much rather read a 6-page memo.
Seriously. Executive team meetings at Amazon begin with everyone absorbing the written word – sometimes for 30 minutes. These memos, which the executives call “narratives”, have four main elements:
- The context or question.
- Approaches to answer the question – by whom, by which method, and their conclusions.
- How is your attempt at answering the question different or the same from previous approaches?
- 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?
While it would be easy to quickly gloss over these points in a presentation, writing a structured narrative requires the author to form coherent thoughts, dig deep into the subject, anticipate tough questions, and formulate responses. The narratives also give everyone a chance to be heard, especially those who prefer to “speak” through writing rather than an oral presentation.
If you start asking your team for 6-page memos before every meeting, you could have a mutiny on your hands. But, you can encourage your team to spend less time creating beautiful presentations and more time on thinking through the real meat of the subject they’re addressing.
More Meeting Tips from Executives
Here are some additional tips from America’s top executives:
Have a stated purpose or agenda. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer requires an agenda in advance of every meeting. By sending it in advance, participants can prepare, know what will be discussed, and see if they’re relevant to the meeting versus being part of a blanket invite. Sticking to prepared agendas during meetings helps attendees focus on the goal and what needs to be achieved.
Create a list of action items at the end of every meeting. The follow-up memo was a go-to tool for Alfred Sloan, who ran GM from the 1920s to the ‘50s. After each meeting, he would send a memo to all participants that outlined decisions made, action items, deadlines, and the executives responsible for each item.
Set an end time. Constraints, deadlines, and limitations often lead to bursts of creativity, while a meeting with no end leads to…well, not much. Need help keeping yourself accountable? Try setting a timer.
Have you tried any of these strategies? If so, what has (or hasn’t) worked for you in the past?