by Steve Susi
We’ve all spent time waiting on hold. It’s just a consequence of modern life. And a scourge. According to mobile advertising analytics firm Marchex, the average American spends a whopping 43 days of her life waiting to speak to customer service.
For many throughout the corporate sphere, meetings are the brand owner’s equivalent of waiting idly on the phone as wasteful minutes tick by.
According to a 2014 study performed by Bain & Company, senior executives spend, on average, two of every five business days in meetings.
In 2017, Harvard Business Review cited research from MIT Sloan Management Review that meetings had grown in both duration and frequency over the previous half-century, from less than 10 hours in the 1960s to an average of nearly 23 hours a week, a 130 percent increase. Worse, those stats don’t even take into account the time needed to prepare for meetings or debrief afterward.
Corporate America has a meeting addiction that doesn’t appear readily curable. In contrast, when I worked at Amazon, we implemented ways to remain productive and succinct while gathered around the conference room table so we could get back to our teams and, ya know, get work done.
In this article, we’ll take a look at those ideas—but first, let’s dive deeper into our obsession with the ultimate time-suck.
“Have You Seen Efficiency?” “Yeah, It’s Stuck in Meetings”
There are differing views on how many meetings corporate Americans attend every day and how much they cost. Inc. reported in 2017, “There are between 36 and 56 million meetings in the United States every day, and the lost productivity that comes from ineffective meetings costs businesses anywhere from $70–$283 billion each year.”
An earlier Inc. article claimed that of the 1,400 professionals who responded to a survey by online collaboration and project management company Wrike, “When asked if they leave company meetings knowing what the next action item is, only 54 percent said ‘yes.’ The rest answered, ‘some of the time,’ ‘rarely,’ or ‘never.’”
Who pays for all that? Why the customer, of course.
If yours is a cover-your-ass culture where everyone on earth is invited to the call so as to insulate the meeting-holder from any responsibility should things go awry down the road, your operational expenditure is a balloon filled with hot air and little to show for it. That misspending of the attendees’ time breaks the rules of the money currency. When people aren’t frugal with others’ time, it’s not long before the brand begins to tell a sluggish story of bloat and expense. It seeps through the conference room walls to the outside world in the form of higher prices, longer reaction times, and fewer innovations—certain to displease the customer (not to mention the beloved shareholder).
The Two-Pizza Rule
“We run lean” is a commonly heard phrase at Amazon when discussing its approach to staffing. “We don’t throw people at problems,” they say. “We throw brainpower.” When there aren’t layers upon layers of staff to allocate to a challenge, meetings have to be time-frugal because there simply aren’t that many people available, and those who can join are already pretty busy. This concept even extended to meeting agenda and email “hygiene,” which were often included in one’s performance reviews, because unnecessarily long gatherings and emails are expensive. Now just imagine what you could do with your piece of that $70–283 billion wasted each year.
Don’t get me wrong—there are lean companies, and then there are bare-bones. I’m not espousing threadbare staffing either, where everyone burns out and quits, at which point millions of dollars’ worth of institutional knowledge and investment walk out one day and never come back. I am saying, though, that with too many people, critical actions like approvals and product delivery just take much, much longer.
To solve for this, Jeff Bezos is known for his “two-pizza team” rule, which stipulates that any group of employees assigned to collaborate on a solution should never be so large that two pizzas couldn’t feed them. Communication improves and speed increases when you have no more than, say, six (modestly hungry) people tasked with an assignment.
More Connections, More Complexity
To demonstrate the point, take a two-pizza team of five people and count the maximum possible one-on-one connections between the individual participants. Four for each member means there are a max of 20 two-person communications channels on the team.
Double the size of the group to 10 and the number of one-to-one connections jumps to 90, a 350% increase. Just as in machinery, the probability of breakdown escalates with every moving part added.
This is hardly new news. Do you have more meaningful conversations when you host a small dinner party or when you’re the bride at a massive wedding reception?
Running lean is less expensive and nimbler, and also prevents the overconfidence borne from “safety in numbers” as well as loss of participation, after more and more voices enter the room and crowd out the lower-ranking and introverted members.
Listening to each other as much as American employees do in meetings devours time to spend on the customer and hitting goals. Innovation depends on these small teams remaining free of handcuffs to hit aggressive deadlines.
Because everyone (in my experience) has goals and programs at Amazon, pretty much anyone you meet at the company will excuse you for the inability to attend a noncritical conference call. Wrap-up notes for all invited, primarily those who could not make it, were a ubiquitous feature there.
The one important meeting that my teams attended (and no doubt thousands more across the tech world) every morning are called “scrums.” If you’re unfamiliar with the Agile software-development methodology, a scrum is when a project manager and all team members gather, usually standing at a whiteboard so it moves swiftly (some managers forbade chairs), to discuss the status of where they are in their “sprint,” or incremental, iterative work sequence.
That 15-minute stand-up was more productive than most of the others I’d have all day. Why? Because it was focused on efficiency and problem-solving in the now, with content deeply pertinent to everyone in attendance, not peripheral information that had little to do with the majority.
After 16 years with New York’s digital ad agencies, Steve Susi joined Amazon Advertising as its NYC creative director in 2012, where his teams would deliver original brand experiences on behalf of hundreds of advertisers and millions of customers worldwide. In 2014 he became its first group creative director and, two years later, first executive creative director, moving to London to lead creative operations across Europe, Asia, and Canada.
For more perspective on driving efficiency across your company, you can find Steve’s book Brand Currency: A Former Amazon Exec on Money, Information, Loyalty, and Time at Amazon. This is his first book.