How Jeff Bezos’​ Brilliant Memo System Can Dramatically Improve Your Virtual Meetings

As a leader, I have never been a fan of update meetings and they are even more problematic in a virtual environment where everyone already has Zoom fatigue and not enough hours in the day.

Everybody has sat through one of these update meetings; a group of key managers gathers to be walked through a PowerPoint deck or summary report with the presenter giving you an update on the performance of the company, initiative department, etc. Rather than using the collective brainpower of the group, the meeting is often a one-way conversation and doesn’t require the effort and opportunity cost for everyone to be in the same place at the same time.

I’ve tried my best to move away from update meetings over the years, however, it’s vital to make sure everybody on a team is kept in the loop as the company grows. The key is to find a better way to do accomplish that goal.

A few years ago a friend whose new boss worked for Jeff Bezos at Amazon told me that the company actually banned PowerPoint presentations in favor of memos.

Instead of reading bullet points on a projector screen, Amazon employees read memos outlining the topics of the meeting before anyone actually starts talking. I hadn’t heard about this technique before and was a bit skeptical. My friend shared he had been as well, but had quickly come to see the efficacy and improved productivity. Bezos has repeatedly demonstrated how nontraditional management practices can be scaled effectively at Amazon.

Because Acceleration Partners is a remote company, I didn’t think reading a memo all together in a meeting made the most sense for our business. But I realized I could ask my team to read a memo or a metric dashboard before a meeting, then use the meeting to delve into that information in a more productive way. We began rolling out the memos at a few of our bigger meetings to avoid starting every meeting with updates, and soon this became the default format for the majority of meetings. This strategy also cuts meeting times in half, which is really important when all your meetings are virtual.

Now, when we have a meeting, we spend our time together on questions, dialog, and debate, rather than listening to somebody read off a bunch of updates for half the meeting.

Another option is to send an asynchronous video update to your team before a key meeting with the relevant detail or use a video update to skip the meeting entirely if its really just a share-out.

As we have extended the use of memos out across the organization, several advantages have become clear. Here are the top five benefits we have seen from Bezos’ memo system:

  • Efficiency. By requiring everybody to read memos before the meeting, we know that everybody has the necessary information before the call. Memos get everybody up to speed on a topic in advance, meaning we can jump right into the discussion. The result is shorter meetings with better outcomes.
  • Better questions and discussions. Since everyone starts meetings having processed the same information in advance, questions are deeper and more thought-provoking, which makes the discussion more robust. People who have taken time to think issues through before the meeting arrive ready to make thorough, reasoned points.
  • Level the playing field. Too often, the people in a company who get all the attention are the extroverts who speak loudest or make the most dynamic slides. Using memos, and soliciting nuanced conversations, gives all participants a chance to be heard and to share their thinking clearly, allowing the best ideas and strategies to surface.
  • Strategic thinking. To write a memo, team members need to clearly articulate a point of view supported by facts and data. While a PowerPoint slide often lists facts and figures on a basic level, a memo requires deep thinking and a narrative, and writers have to make a case or draw a conclusion. This is a great practice and a lost art in today’s fast-paced digital world—any opportunity to foster this skill strengthens the company.
  • A historical record of ideas and decisions. If anyone misses a meeting, the memo is available to provide background and context to make sure nobody falls behind. Memos also serve as a record of the reasoning behind decisions that can be revisited in the far future—you can save memos, make them searchable, add them to learning management system, use them for training, and more. The result is a permanent record of why your company is where it is that can be used to help build a future vision.

Memos can be a game-changer to help you have better meetings, push your team to think smarter and provide a valuable record for your company’s progress. Here are a few sample formats we have used.

Update Memo

Summary of key data/performance, Analysis of important takeaways from the summary, Areas of opportunity, Red flags or areas of concern. Key discussion points for meeting or outcomes needed.

New Idea Memo

Current Situation, The Opportunity, Proposed Plan, Resources Needed, Risks, Next Steps & Responsibilities.

Debrief Memo

Describe the incident, What went right and/or what went wrong? Nature of topic/department, How did we try to rectify or solve the issue in short term? What was the outcome, next steps? What can we learn next time or apply to a new or existing core process? Based on the above, what other departments need to be involved in changes?

While you won’t likely be getting business advice with your Prime membership anytime soon, this is an example of how Bezos and Amazon continue to push the envelope in management as well as retail.

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