These management practices must finally be abandoned after the pandemic, say two former Amazon directors

With the vaccination campaign in full swing, companies are once again looking ahead to the return of all staff to the workplace and holding meetings.

But the unexpected success of working from home is likely to cause a lasting shift towards online. There is a good chance that a mix of office days and working from home days will become the new norm.

If that’s the case, companies can learn from the experiences of tech companies like Amazon where we’ve worked for years. We think there will be an end to two management practices: hiring people by feel and powerpoint meetings.

Don’t hire people based on feeling anymore

How many times have you heard a manager tell an applicant to “look in the eye” to get to know him or her better or to “spend time with the candidate.” We humans are programmed to think that a face-to-face meeting is the best way to determine if someone belongs to our tribe.

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There is nothing wrong with this instinct, as it is a natural part of any application process. But when it comes to the actual hiring decision, relying on gut feeling can create biases that stand in the way of business success.

Because people are simply programmed to like people who are like them the most.

If you’re a white male manager in your thirties, a Berkeley graduate, and a mountain climber, chances are you’ll hire someone with a similar life history. And that is becoming increasingly problematic as companies want to become more diverse.

Another major problem is that after the pandemic, it may remain the case that new candidates will be spoken to via a video link. However good the preparation and evaluation may be, it is even more difficult to properly assess the applicant.

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What is the alternative?

Many companies do not have a standard plan for interviews and assessments. Amazon’s board faced this challenge when rapid growth forced many people to hire in a short period of time, while concerns were raised about whether the company culture that had fueled its success would be maintained.

It was impossible for CEO Jeff Bezos and those immediately around them to personally assess the hundreds of managers they hire each year.

The solution was to capture the basic behavior expected of Amazonians and that the interviewees would properly question candidates about their past behavior in the desired areas.But until the pandemic broke out, its use was still as widespread as ever. Zoom meetings may have only increased in popularity as nervous presenters look for something to show on their screens.

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These people are nervous because they miss interacting with a live audience. They miss the feeling with the ‘hall’; the possibility to gauge the reactions of the spectators. Perhaps the nervous speakers are looking at a number of black areas, of people who intentionally switch off their camera. A PowerPoint presentation then offers something to hold on to; something to fall back on in the absence of clear audience feedback.

However, the problem with Zoom meetings is that Powerpoint is clunky and thus unusable. Usually the slides present information in a flat and unstructured way, which makes it difficult to make connections between the data points offered. A skilled speaker can solve this in a physical presentation by reading the reactions of the spectators. Let that be impossible with presentations via the webcam in your attic room or in the laundry room.

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What is the alternative then?

As early as the 1990s, data visualization expert Edward Tufte called for exchanging slides for written stories. That way, each meeting would begin by reading the text in silence. Only then would the presentation begin.

A story forces the narrator to make explicit logical connections between data points. In this way, more information is passed on than just with individual slides. Because people read much faster than listen, presentations become shorter. The attendees are also better informed. As a result, they ask questions much more effectively and come up with better comments. A written story takes more time to prepare than a Powerpoint. And relinquishes some of the control that the speaker has – the grip of the slides – to the audience.

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Tufte’s ideas were radical for a long time. But within Amazon they struck a chord. In 2004, the company banned the PowerPoint presentation.

Since everything within Amazon is digital, each participant can call up the written story on a screen and add questions or comments as they read along. Amazon requires a maximum of six pages for presentations. This ensures that the presenter had to write down the story succinctly. And when the meeting comes to an end, the team has a document with all the topics, questions and answers discussed.

The bond between speaker and audience is strengthened by this way of presenting.Amazon has been successfully applying these two innovative management practices – no longer accepting instinct and banning PowerPoint – since the beginning of this century. After working at other companies, we are convinced that these changes could work well in other places, not just Amazon.

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Now that the pandemic has disrupted our habits and customs, it is a good time to explore alternatives. Colin Bryar worked at Amazon between 1998 and 2010, including as Jeff Bezos’ technical director and advisor. Bill Carr was vice president of digital media during his time at Amazon (1999-2014), among other things. The pair are now active as consultants and have written the book ‘Working Backwards: Insights, Stories and Secrets from Inside Amazon’.

Author: Jobly