The modern workplace’s vogue is informal information exchange. We sit in open floor plan offices so that we can spontaneously collide, chat, and collaborate. The office setup for a meet-cute of ideas can be fizzy and energizing, though when sparks aren’t flying, the colliding can be noisy and distracting.
Jeff Bezos takes a totally different approach to management far from that madding crowd. He has a contrarian management technique that’s peculiarly old school — write it down.
In Amazon senior executive meetings, before any conversation or discussion begins, everyone sits for 30 minutes in total silence, carefully reading six-page printed memos. Reading together in the meeting guarantees everyone’s undivided attention to the issues at hand, but the real magic happens before the meeting ever starts. It happens when the author is writing the memo.
What makes this management trick work is how the medium of the written word forces the author of the memo to really think through what he or she wants to present.
“Full sentences are harder to write,” [Bezos] says. “They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.”
In having to write it all down, authors are forced to think out tough questions and formulate clear, persuasive replies, reasoning through the structure and logic in the process.
It makes sense that Amazon executives call these six-page memos “narratives.” There’s a conflict to be resolved and a story to reach the company’s happy endings of solutions, innovation, and happy customers. Specifically, the narrative has four main elements.
[The six-page narratives are structured] like a dissertation defense:
1) the context or question.
2) approaches to answer the question - by whom, by which method, and their conclusions
3) how is your attempt at answering the question different or the same from previous approaches
4) now what? - that is, what’s in it for the customer, the company, and how does the answer to the question enable innovation on behalf of the customer?
Legendary CEO of Intel, Andy Grove, takes Bezos’s view on writing up a notch. Grove considered written reports vital because “the author is forced to be more precise than he might be verbally.” In fact, he considered the whole exercise of writing “more of a medium of self-discipline than a way to communicate information”, so much so that his ultimate conviction was that “writing the report is important; reading it often is not.”
Bezos and Grove’s imposition of writing as a medium turns self-discipline and personal reflection into a distributed process. Reflection is a fundamental way to think through and give yourself feedback on your work, where feedback can be otherwise rather scarce in the workplace but integral to improving the quality of your thought and action. Encouraging reports to engage in the reflective process of writing helps each and every individual autonomously work toward becoming a master of their craft.
So reflect and write it down, verbs and all. You’ll be better prepared and excited to present, share, collide, collaborate, and lead at work!
This is all true. I have been invited to give a talk at work about a project we’ve been working on, and I intend to write it out as a narrative first. It would help with the Q&A session if I could anticipate criticism a week earlier.