Amazon’s Amazing Approach to Management Meetings
Write the word “executive” and the adjective “busy” is likely to be in close proximity. That’s the nature of the modern workplace. Modern managers – including L&D professionals – tend to be so busy that there’s little time for them to think. Moreover, the transition from hectic ‘working’ to deep thinking may not come easily to many.
As the American poet Robert Frost once observed, “The brain is a wonderful organ. It starts working the moment you get up in the morning and doesn’t stop until you get into the office.”
Writing for FT | IE Corporate Learning Alliance, David Bolchover, an award-winning business journalist and author of three books on management and the workplace, explains that Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has found a way to make executives think harder for longer in meetings.
Pages of Prose
Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, makes his executives think hard about specific business problems. Then, they must write their conclusions down in several pages of clear prose. So, while many ambitious managers believe that rushing around at top speed illustrates their business acumen, a man who’s worth some US$ 130bn takes the view that these people are putting image before substance.
In other words – Bolchover points out – Bezos has abandoned the long-held popular notion that the truly commercial mind should only engage in ‘high-level’ or ‘top-line’ brevity.
In a letter to Amazon’s shareholders, Bezos revealed that his people ‘don’t do PowerPoint.’ Instead, Amazon executives are required to create six-page memos. These memos are constructed using ‘real’ sentences – not the bullet-pointed ambiguous, shambolic phrases of PowerPoint slides.
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At the start of each meeting, all the participants read all of each of these memos, in silence. Bezos says that this forms the basis for ‘a high-quality discussion’ in the rest of the meeting.
Bezos believes that the discipline of reading and writing grammatically correct prose generates nuggets of wisdom.
He’s been quoted as saying, “Writing a four-page memo is harder than ‘writing’ a 20-page PowerPoint because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and a better understanding of what’s important, 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 interconnectedness of ideas.”
The Bezos-approved approach to management meetings is time-consuming.
Reading the memos at the start of meetings lasts for 30 minutes. Writing them in the first place can take weeks.
According to Bezos, the best memos are written and rewritten, shared with colleagues who’re asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind. That’s something that can’t be done in a mere day or two.
While this process can, and does, happen via the medium of English – especially if English is the ‘lingua franca’ of a multi-national or global organization, such as Amazon – it’s a process that can happen equally effectively in any language. This is particularly true where organizations employ multi-cultural workforces and /or operate multi-nationally.
Writing memos involves more sophisticated language skills than are required in producing an image-oriented PowerPoint presentation. So, adopting the ‘Bezos approach’ to management meetings emphasizes the importance of executives in these organisations developing their communications and linguistic skills – especially their writing skills. This not only applies to developing their communications skills in their native language but also in the other language(s) represented in their organization.
Maybe the methodical pace which Bezos sets for his managers is suited to a company – such as Amazon – that faces no substantial competitive threat. Vulnerable firms, especially fast-growing start-ups, under pressure to rush their latest product or service onto the market and adapt quickly to the customer’s response, might see Bezos’ approach to management as an unattainable and unsustainable luxury.
However, there’s no denying that the process of writing and editing grammatically correct prose forces you to think more deeply and test your ideas rigorously. Moreover, this state of affairs prevents people hiding behind vacuous and incoherent presentations.
Perhaps forcing leaders to think harder before they act will ensure that these leaders are less likely to make costly, wasteful errors – which lead to corporate and individual inefficiency rather than profitable success. Ultimately, this should save these executives both time and money – and, hopefully, it will enhance their careers.
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