Flipped meetings: Learning from Amazon’s meeting policy

The conventional approach to meetings is all wrong, just like the conventional approach to education, and for the same reasons. That’s why innovators in education are giving up on the traditional model of classroom lecture + homework, following the lead of Jonathan Bergman and Aaron Sams, who in 2007 ‘flipped’ their classrooms at Woodland Park School in Woodland Park, Colorado,. They discovered software to record presentations, and started recording their lectures and put them online for students to watch. And they turned their classrooms into working sessions, where students did what was traditionally ‘homework’, with guidance from the teachers and other students.

Screenshot 2013-10-18 09.10.06

The results after a few months were considerable. The school had a historical failure rate of 50% in Bergman’s English class. That fell to 19% in the first year.

This is another example of the benefits of switching from a push communication model, where the sender decides who needs to hear what and when, to a pull model, where the recipients make those decisions for themselves.  In this case, the students can stop and rewind the video if they didn’t understand the point about Hamlet’s father, or the Pythagorean theorem. They can watch as many times as needed, without consideration of the duration of a class, or the average pace of lecture chosen to meet the generalized needs of the class as a whole. They can stop and read a Wikipedia entry, or reread sections of Shakespeare’s works. They chose what to pull into their learning context, at their pace. They can develop their own practice: they dig their own hole and sharpen their own shovel (see Dig your own hole, sharpen your own shovel). They can start to take charge of their own education, instead of following the path laid out by others.

And the nature of engagement in the class is totally different, and calls for different skills. Instead of being a passive observer, taking notes furiously, the student becomes an active participant in their own learning. And that learning becomes colearning, since they can work with others on the material in question, and benefit from the give-and-take around the ideas underlying the work.

And the role of the teacher completely changes. Yes, they may still develop and record the lectures, but maybe not. Increasingly, schools using the flipped model are likely to acquire lectures by the very best presenters, which is a different skill set than that of teachers in flipped colearning. Instead of lecturing, they are coaching, and guiding, and drawing students into discussion.

I was reading about the way that Amazon manages its meetings, and I realized they were part of the way toward flipped meetings. Jeff Bezos has ruled out Powerpoint at the company, arguing against its forms, echoing Edward Tufte’s reasoning that power corrupts, and powerpoint corrupts absolutely, because it is really designed around the needs of the presenter, not the others in the room. It is a push technology, and in the hands of most people, a blunt instrument.

Bezos described his idea of how meetings should run in a Charlie Rose interview (synopsized by Conor Neill):

“We have study hall at the beginning of our meetings.” says Jeff Bezos.“The traditional kind of corporate meeting starts with a presentation. Somebody gets up in front of the room and presents with a powerpoint presentation, some type of slide show.  In our view you get very little information, you get bullet points.  This is easy for the presenter, but difficult for the audience.  And so instead, all of our meetings are structured around a 6 page narrative memo.”

Instead of Powerpoint, Amazon relies on a six page ‘narrative’ to structure the flow of meetings, as described by Pete Abilla, a former Amazonian:

Pete Abilla, Amazon: How are the 6 page “narratives” structured in Jeff Bezos S-Team meetings? – Quora

[The six-page narratives are structured] like a dissertation defense:

1) the context or question.

2) approaches to answer the question – by whom, by which method, and their conclusions

3) how is your attempt at answering the question different or the same from previous approaches

4) 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?

I will leave to one side the issue of whether this is the perfect way to approach every possible business issue, but I do agree with Bezos that long format exposition is a better way to reason about business issues than the fragmentary acognitive style of Powerpoint. In his words,

Adam Lashinsky, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos: The ultimate disrupter

“For new employees, it’s a strange initial experience,” he tells Fortune. “They’re just not accustomed to sitting silently in a room and doing study hall with a bunch of executives.” Bezos says the act of communal reading guarantees the group’s undivided attention. Writing a memo is an even more important skill to master. “Full sentences are harder to write,” he says. “They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.”

And even better, he’s flipped the meeting, at least partially. The meeting is not taken up by a lecture, it becomes a coworking session. Once the reading is out of the way (which could happen in advance, by the way, but Bezos’ approach ensures that everyone has in fact read the document) the participants can actually wade into the issue and its resolution. It changes the dynamics of meetings totally.

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Again, absorbing the arguments and insights of the meeting’s ‘leader’ could take place the day before the meeting. Bezos’ model is to read it at the start of the meeting, but the cognitive outcome is the same: participants can read the document in their own way, at their own pace, rereading as needed. And then the meeting operates in flipped mode: people are working together in real time on the issue, not spending 45 minutes listening, while checking email and day dreaming.

I have inverted the last line, emphasizing the increase in learning as opposed to the educational system’s obsession with failure. As I recently wrote, businesses have to shift their operational foundation so that strategic learning is valued over strategic execution (see Metaphors matter: Talking about how we talk about organizations). This means that meetings — more than ever — have to be about learning to the greatest degree possible — and therefore we should flip our meetings, since it has been shown to increase the rate of learning significantly.