New Amazon CEO’s Scary Meetings Make Sense
Andy Jassy, chief executive officer of web services at Amazon.com Inc., speaks during the Amazon Web Services Summit. (Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

New Amazon CEO’s Scary Meetings Make Sense

Andy Jassy, Amazon’s incoming CEO, has a conference room nicknamed the Chop. As Business Insider puts it in a profile of Jassy, “The Chop is where ideas, and sometimes employees, go to get chopped down to size.”

Despite the alarming name, I’m not sure Jassy’s meeting management style is anything to be feared. In fact, other leaders could learn something from it.

The basic gist seems to be that if you’re going to be meeting with the boss, you’d best be prepared. To this end, employees prepare memos ahead of time instead of trying to wing it. Most of the meeting is spent discussing the contents of the memo, so a lot of preparation goes into it.

Amazon’s outgoing CEO, Jeff Bezos, has extolled these memos, saying Amazon doesn’t do PowerPoint. “The great memos are written and rewritten, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind," he once wrote in a letter to shareholders.

Bezos has suggested these six-page memos take perhaps about a week to prepare. But in fact, it sounds as if Amazon employees may spend much more time than that preparing, given the high stakes and the desire to look good in front of their bosses. That sounds like a lot, but if you’re proposing a major new initiative at one of the world’s most successful corporations, why wouldn’t you put that level of thought into it?

These memos follow a structure: intro (overview), goals (business objectives and metrics), tenets (the principles that will guide the project, which should align with Amazon’s core principles), state of the business (why the project is needed), lessons learned (what we figured out last year) and strategic priorities (what we’ll do next year).

A former Amazon employee describing the memo process for The Writing Cooperative explains, “The goal is to fill up all six pages without any filler.” But there’s also sometimes an appendix that might bring the total memo length to more than 40 pages.

In the so-called Chop meetings, Jassy and the team review such memos — in the room, together, in real time. After reading and taking notes for perhaps 25 minutes, the meeting attendees then pepper the presenters with questions about their plan. It’s not a brainstorming meeting in which people bandy about ideas; the goal is to pressure-test the assumptions and data in the memo.

It sounds stressful. But it also sounds like a pretty good idea. How many meetings have you attended where a smooth-talking extrovert gets buy-in for a half-baked plan because he can make it sound good? How many sloppy PowerPoints have you seen that hide the weakness of a colleague’s logic in glossy photos and bullet points? How many meetings have you organized where half the group shows up not having done any of the prep work?

“Sorry!” the offender might breezily say. “I didn’t have time to read your email. What’s this meeting about?” Grrrr. Or maybe they try to fake it, dwelling on a short section they skimmed en route to the conference room.

Another problem that discipline avoids: the easily derailed meeting, in which a session that starts off well gets hijacked by some “blue sky thinking.” People “just want to run an idea up the flagpole.” And when you’re all finished “throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks,” you somehow haven’t addressed the original matter the meeting was called to decide upon.

What a waste of time.

And money. If you’ve got an hourlong meeting with 25 attendees who each make $130,000 a year, it’s going to cost about $2,275. Now imagine you have one of those meetings a week. That’s $118,300 a year. If people are showing up unprepared, it’s money down the drain. And if the projects the business approves are weak ones, the meeting might cost even more. I’m willing to take a wild guess and bet that New Coke came out of some pretty lame meetings.

One more reason to bring discipline to your meetings: Most employees suffer from way too many of them. A day of back-to-back meetings leaves no time for any follow-up items to be followed up, or any action items to be actioned. Perhaps that’s one reason that 73% of people admit using meeting time to do other work — a figure that’s likely risen even higher now that so many meetings take place over video. Forcing people to actually prepare for a meeting is a good way to keep the overall number of meetings to a minimum and get more out of each one.

So, yes, Amazon prefers to run meetings in which people think through ideas before proposing them; show up prepared; do the pre-reading; and stay focused on the task at hand. No wonder they’re taking over the world.

And the scary “Chop” name? Reportedly it comes from the 492-page Stendhal novel “Charterhouse of Parma,” which Jassy read while an undergraduate at Harvard. The eponymous charterhouse is a Carthusian monastery that appears on the novel’s last page; the hero retires here to die. Jassy also named his college dorm room after it.

OK … now I’m a little intimidated.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Sarah Green Carmichael is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion. She was previously managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron’s, and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted the HBR Ideacast.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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