Amazon’s Meeting Rules

August 19, 2015
Maya Stosskopf

For the past week or so, the corporate world has been abuzz with talk of Amazon. The source of all the chatter was a NYT piece outlining the “soul-destroying” culture of the company who redefined so many categories I’ve lost count. The article included a few glancing references to the killer meeting culture. “At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings”. I was intrigued, so I tried to find out more about Amazon’s meetings. I was able to uncover a few other rules they use.amazon_sad

No PowerPoint

This is a rule I can get behind. Basically, Jeff Bezos thinks that anything can sound like a good idea in a PowerPoint deck. It’s easy to hide mediocrity in bullet points. I’ve found that PowerPoint manages to elevate poor speakers to average and drag a great speakers down to average as well.  It’s an equalizer.  It also creates a particular sort of “read-along-with me” meeting that I find beyond frustrating. If you wanted me to read something, we don’t need to meet. We meet to talk, collaborate, brainstorm, refine.

The 6-Page Meeting Memo

But then things get weird. Amazonians holding meetings are required to produce a detailed memo, which discusses the issues at hand in depth and advocates for a certain position. These memos are between 2 and 6 pages and also include multiple appendices. The process of writing the memo is described as especially vigorous. You are expected to go through many many drafts before the actual meeting and get input. While I can see the advantage of requiring a well-thought-out opinion that is ready to defend, this seems to turn a meeting where work gets done and decisions are made collaboratively into a meeting where your proposal is debated and you must defend it. This would seem especially prone to a decision-making error where the group is making Yes or No decisions without properly considering other alternatives.

Meeting Study Hall

At Amazon, the first part of the meeting is reserved for quiet reading of the aforementioned memo. This is supposed to highlight the importance of the memo and gives everyone time to read it and immediately react. To me, this seems like a waste of time. Some people read faster than others. Some people only coalesce their thoughts after some reflection. And most everyone’s first reaction after reading some proposal is to tear it apart. The practice also isolates anyone who processes information best in other ways. A key benefit of this strategy is that no one interrupts the presenter to ask a question that will be addressed later on. I think we can see that Jeff Bezos is someone who likes the written word and argument. Me, I prefer collaboration and consensus.

Two Pizza Rule

Bezos has a preference for small, decentralized, teams. This is codified as “the two pizza rule.”  This does not seem to be a rule for meetings exactly, more of a rule about teams. I assume more than one team could be in a meeting sometimes. The rule is supposed to combat groupthink, which is the tendency of a larger group to become less effective and engaged because everyone assumes everyone else is on top of things, etc.  While this is true of larger groups, the effects can be overcome through effective use of facilitation techniques. I’m just saying.

Disagree and Commit

Amazon has a set of core values they have cultivated throughout their organization. Their values represent characteristics they believe true leaders possess. Some of them, like “Bias for Action”, I wish I could import to other companies. But the value that sets meetings up to be contentious is “Disagree and Commit”. “Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.” This value has at its core a definition of consensus. You are required to work towards a solution you can live with, support, and get behind every single day. You have an obligation to point out flaws. I think this is one of those traits that becomes a double-edged sword. By making it a core value, you invite people to focus on it. “If I didn’t disagree with someone in a meeting I didn’t do my job” is a different mindset from “something about this doesn’t seem right, it’s my duty to speak up about why I can’t support this.”

So that’s a look inside Amazon’s meetings. What do you think? What would you borrow from Amazon? Did they find a better way to meet?

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