The most underappreciated skill in business
Imagine a business meeting where nobody talks for the first thirty minutes. All participants are handed a document and the group reads silently, while jotting down thoughts, comments, and follow ups on the border of the paper. This productive silence goes on for about half an hour - enough time for the group to go through the business memo. This memo usually consists of the main body (usually a dense six page writeup) and several pages of appendix with all supporting material including graphs, tables, and customer quotes. This seemingly peculiar process is the way Amazon runs meetings.
The act of writing leads to better business proposals
Writing is not easy. To write a business proposal requires a lot of thinking and several iterations. Through the writing process, the author is forced to deeply think about a problem, gather the right data, and structure the main arguments to convince their audience. This simple realization is what led Bezos to ban Powerpoint from Amazon meetings, and instead require a “well structured narrative”.
Jeff Bezos has walked the walk several times but the most characteristic examples are likely his annual shareholder letters. Jeff started writing shareholder letters in 1997, when Amazon went public. In his first letter he outlined his vision for Amazon, explaining why he thinks the internet and ecommerce are big opportunities (remember this was 1997), while detailing the main principles he would use to run the company: long term thinking and customer obsession. Since then, he has been writing a shareholder letter every year, presenting learnings, company priorities, and key strategy points. After each of these letters, he always attaches this first 1997 letter, reminding everyone that the key principles when the company went public still remain relevant.
Being able to communicate a strategy in a few pages requires a deep understanding of the problem space. Jeff offers the first tip - good writing takes time:
"Often, when a memo isn’t great, it’s not the writer’s inability to recognize the high standard, but instead a wrong expectation on scope: they mistakenly believe a high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more! They’re trying to perfect a handstand in just two weeks, and we’re not coaching them right. The great memos are written and rewritten, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind.”
Starting from an outline, one starts filling the gaps: collecting data, doing customer research, adding financial projections, or designing mockups. Every reading reveals one more opportunity for improvement and every feedback session enriches the content with the perspective of diverse team members and stakeholders. A key decision that ensures quality is the page limit - usually a six page doc for Amazon. As Pascal famously said “I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter."
A good document leads to better quality feedback
The second accomplishment of writing is that it gives enough context to the audience to provide quality feedback. While executives have a good understanding of the big picture, they are rarely familiar with all details of a specific problem space. A good doc allows them to quickly ramp and be able to utilize their experience to help the team solve a problem. This process democratizes feedback to not only ones familiar with the topic, but anyone who cares to contribute.
As Brad Porter, an ex-Amazon VP puts it“Amazon has fundamentally innovated in how to scale the process of bringing groups of people deeply up to speed in new spaces and making critical decisions based on that insight quickly.”
Writing creates alignment
One of the outcomes of a document review is alignment. Alignment doesn’t mean that everyone needs to agree; on the contrary, disagreements are highly encouraged. Based on the “disagree and commit” leadership principle, “Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting”. This debate ensures a good decision outcome. However at the end of the meeting “once a decision is determined, they commit wholly”. As a result, the whole team is clear on what they are trying to build. The ambiguity is removed as the document is always available to refresh everyone’s memory.
Writing scales well
As a company grows, writing scales better than any other form of communication. A document gives a lot of context behind decisions and thus requires minimal time for meetings that repeat the same context. This way a new employee or a team that wasn’t part of the review can get onboarded really fast, focusing on specific questions they have on the doc vs. requiring other team members to repeat the whole discussion several times.
Writing is the fastest path to market
At times teams are tempted to go build and see what happens. While this might seem the fastest way to market, it is a big fallacy. By spending time to write a detailed proposal, a team can avoid costly mistakes and get confident about the value proposition and customer experience before a single line of code is written. While counterintuitive, writing is the fastest path to market.
Note: About twenty years ago Steven King published one of his best books. Surprisingly, this was not one of his famous thriller novels, but a masterclass on the art of writing. “On writing: a memoir of the craft” holds a fine balance between practical writing advice and stories from King’s life, from his early struggles to a near-fatal accident a year before the book’s publication. As part of his experience, King describes how writing helped him recover from his accident. While I can’t claim I get even slightly close to Steven King’s talent, I have come to appreciate good writing and understand its importance in business. The title of this post is a reference to King’s book.