On reading documents in meetings

Amazon famously has meeting attendees read documents at the beginning of the meeting. It seems to work well for them (I’m not sure that’s the secret sauce, but that’s for another day). Tech exec Jason Crawford recently had a Twitter thread promoting this concept.

He got some disagreement on this, including from my friend Julia who considered it “inaccessible and exclusionary”.

Her arguments are right on and sufficient on their own. But there’s a broader point too: this is solving the wrong problem.

[ed note: The previous paragraph does not sufficiently express my intent. The exclusionary effect that Julia points out are reason enough to not engage in this practice. Full stop. My point about “solving the wrong problem” are more along the lines of “even if it weren’t exclusionary, here’s why you shouldn’t do it.” Thanks to Ruth for the comment that calls this out.]

Is your document too long for people to understand and digest? Fix that! Identify people who can act as editors that can help others within your organization write better documents. Or better yet, pay for writing training for your employees. It costs money, but it produces real (but hard-to-quantify) savings. Not only will you save time by having more understandable documents, but you may even have better ideas.

Are people not reading it because they’re too busy or don’t care? Fix that! Maybe it’s irrelevant to the person; that’s an indication that they don’t need to be invited to the meeting anyway. Or maybe they’re overworked, or mis-worked. That’s a management problem that will manifest elsewhere. Or maybe they’re just not doing it. Again, that’s a management problem — if that doesn’t show up in their performance evaluation, then you’re showing that it’s not actually important to you.

Jason suggests scheduling a 90 minute meeting if the document takes 30 minutes to read. That’s a waste of 30 minutes. Yes people should absolutely read the document. But they should also have the flexibility to do it when it makes sense to them. Maybe they have a train ride home that they’d rather do reading on. Maybe they like to block out time around their other meetings. It’s not valuing their time to decide when they get to read the document.

He also says it avoids “negotiation” about how soon in advance a document should be sent. This is a cultural norm that you can set. All of this comes down to a shortcut to avoid the hard work of setting a culture that gives people flexibility while still holding them accountable.

6 thoughts on “On reading documents in meetings

  1. I’m with your friend Julia on this–and it’s not just vision problems that could cause this insane document-handling method to be exclusionary and inaccessible. If you’ve got someone aboard who is dyslexic or has other cognitive/reading issues, then setting a fixed time to read the document in the meeting will almost certainly prevent them from participating, further marginalizing people who already feel marginalized by the world around them.

    And that, my dear friend, is more than enough reason to not do it–that’s not the “wrong problem.” The biggest problem here is “By doing this, I’m being an unempathetic jerk to my colleagues who do not read and comprehend the same way I do.”

    Better company culture, flexibility+accountability, all that you say after the quote of Julia’s tweet, is gravy on top of fixing the problem of someone being unempathetic and exclusionary.

  2. Good to hear from you again, Ruth! You’re absolutely right that the exclusionary impact is sufficient reason to not adopt this practice. That’s what I was trying to get across in my transition paragraph, and I apologize if I didn’t convey that clearly. Perhaps a better way to express my intent would be “even if not being a jerk to your coworkers doesn’t convince you, here are other reasons you’re wrong.”

  3. How about “If not being a jerk to your coworkers isn’t enough to convince you, you’re truly an awful human being, and shouldn’t be considered employable by any sane organization.”

    That might be overkill–I’m in a bitchy mood today, and have a hair-trigger about this sort of thing, since I deal with it All. The. Time.

    Miss you much, my friend.

  4. It’s not just the problems with exclusion and accessibility (which are many and varied). It’s also a matter of the quality of the review. People will be skimming rather than reading. Because of time constraints (whether actual or perceived), many probably won’t be thinking about what they’re reading; they’ll just react. They’ll pick nits, and ignore that the document is a draft which is malleable. Even for short documents, that won’t lead to the quality of review you’re looking for.

    The suggestions in the last four paragraphs of the post are good. Obviously, they’d take time to turn into reality. The question is what to do while that reality is being shaped.

  5. Thanks, Scott! I agree that more thoughtful reactions are generally better. And you’re right that it’s a slow process to fix the cultural problems.

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