June 1, 2019 · 4 min read
When you have a document to review in a meeting, you should do a really counter-intuitive thing: Don’t send it out beforehand. Instead, share the doc at the beginning of the meeting and have everyone read it, silently, in the meeting.
I can hear all your objections now: “What a waste of time! You should read the doc before the meeting!” “How awkward! Sitting there in silence…” Et cetera. Some of these are real, some are just the discomfort of the new. But the pros outweigh all the cons:
Most importantly, it means that everyone definitely read the document. The biggest problem with the standard process is when people haven’t read the doc, or only skimmed it. Then you waste time summarizing it, or worse, they have the discussion without context.
The doc is fresh on everyone’s mind. With the standard process, many people read the doc a day or two prior to the meeting.
It’s obvious what the deadline is for having the doc ready: the start of the meeting. There’s no negotiation. With the standard process, it may be unclear how much time to give people to read the doc in advance (3 days for busy execs?), and you end up negotiating it.
You minimize the time from prep to discussion/decision. If the doc can be done by Wednesday, then you can have the meeting on Wednesday. With the standard process, you have to have the meeting Thursday or Friday to give people time to read.
“Isn’t it more efficient to read beforehand, and not waste time in the meeting reading?” Not really. You have to take the time anyway. Why not calendar it?
“People read at different speeds. The faster readers are wasting time.” Only a few minutes. This doesn’t really matter. (Note: At Amazon, Bezos was sometimes the last person to finish. If you got done early, maybe you should slow down and read more carefully.)
“The person who wrote the doc doesn’t have to read it! Surely they are wasting their time.” This also turns out not to matter much. Bring your laptop and do email while you’re waiting.
“It’s better to let people read the doc well in advance so you get deeper thoughts instead of gut reactions.” If people have deep thoughts days later, they can always follow up with you then. This usually doesn’t outweigh the benefits.
“You should just treat your co-workers like adults!” This process is not driven by lack of respect for colleagues. I would argue it is based, among other things, on respect for the demands of a busy schedule. The goal is to get the best thinking and discussion from everyone.
Some people feel rushed and skim the document. You have to allow adequate time to read, which is often more than people feel comfortable with. The most senior person in the room should consider deliberately taking the longest, like Bezos, to erase any stigma around taking your time.
Some people talk during the reading time, especially if they read the doc beforehand. This is distracting and makes it hard for others to read. Set a cultural norm against this. (It can help to not share the doc early, even if it’s ready. That keeps everyone busy reading.)
Some people will recap what they wrote, right after everyone is done reading it, if they’re too used to the traditional slideshow presentation format. Train yourself and others not to do this. Everyone just finished reading the doc! Maximize your time by diving right into discussion.
Or, objections I am more sympathetic to:
This may not work for all documents/meetings. I said it in the context of business documents such as product specs, tech designs, project updates, strategic plans, engineering postmortems, candidate feedback, etc. Maybe it doesn’t work for reading movie scripts, or academic papers. I don’t know.
There’s probably a length limitation on the document. I can see reading up to 30 minutes, maybe 45 max. Longer than that, this probably doesn’t work well. (And if the doc takes 30 minutes to read, I would schedule 90 total for the meeting.)
This process may not work for all people. Some people, such as those with dyslexia, may need extra time to read. If that applies to your team, maybe do a different process. Again, the goal is to get the best thinking and discussion from everyone.
You must leave adequate time for careful reading. To reiterate, if you don’t allow enough time and no one can do more than skim the document, that is worse than the standard process. Better to send the doc ahead of time than to rush.
A decent compromise to some of these issues is to send the doc ahead of time and also allow time in meeting to read. People who read ahead of time can use the time in meeting to refresh their memories. That gets you most of the benefits. You have to fight for silence, though.
Finally, this is not universal advice. I laid out the reasons and the context. If the assumptions, and the mechanism, don’t fit your situation, then don’t use it! It’s a tool, not a dogma.
If you want to do this with your team, don’t spring it on them at the beginning of a meeting. It’s too weird, counter-intuitive and awkward. Get agreement beforehand so that everyone knows what to expect going in.
Happy silent reading!
These days I do most of my writing at The Roots of Progress. If you liked this essay, check out my other work there.
Copyright © Jason Crawford. Some rights reserved: CC BY-ND 4.0