Want to be a better leader?
Here's one thing you can start doing today that is sure to improve your effectiveness: write more.
Amazon has a culture of writing.
Before discussing a product, obstacle, or initiative, a manager publishes a one-page memo outlining the issue.
This document includes an executive summary, background, projected outcomes, and proposed next steps.
It isn't a PowerPoint presentation. It's a narrative written in a Google Doc or Microsoft Word.
Here's Jeff Bezos's explanation of why Amazon uses this approach:
Well said, Jeff.
As leaders, narrative-style writing helps us in three ways:
- it clarifies our thoughts on a subject
- it increases our productivity, and
- it scales communication
Joan Didion is considered one of the founders of "New Journalism" post-World War II-era and is quoted as saying:
"I don't know what I think until I write it down."
Even Einstein believed in writing, saying:
"If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough."
Writing down our thoughts exposes flaws and gaps in our thinking. It highlights where our ideas collide and overlap and where we need data to support a position.
The difficult intellectual task is to figure out for yourself, what do you mean? What are you saying here? Close attention to the craft of writing exposes the places where you don’t yet know the answer to that question and need to do more thinking.
- Heather Wallace, PhD
Narrative-style writing uncovers our own sloppy and illogical thinking before others find out about it.
It also helps leaders drive alignment, which is key in the remote-first, virtual office reality many of us now live in.
I recently pulled together a small team of colleagues to change one of our key customer processes.
Before our first meeting, I spent 20 minutes describing the problem we needed to solve, guiding principles on how to solve it, and a list of proposed actions.
I shared a one-pager with the group several days before our first meeting and invited my teammates to comment within the shared document.
By the time we got into the meeting...
- We were oriented and aligned on the problem and potential solutions
- Everyone helped shape our plans by weighing in asynchronously (in the shared document via comments and suggested edits)
- Our first meeting, scheduled for 30 minutes, only lasted 20
A 20-minute investment in writing saved us 60 in the first meeting alone.
In these times of back-to-back Zoom calls, I can think of few things more refreshing than meetings that end EARLY.
This approach also reduced friction with my colleagues and increased the speed with which we can take advantage of a significant business opportunity.
(Okay, enough patting myself on the back 🤓)
Writing is also a great way to scale communications.
Once we clarify our thoughts, we can use the written word to scale our communications.
A shared Google doc can replace numerous live meetings and preparation sessions for larger issues and projects. It can serve as the "meeting before the meeting" to avoid the dreaded meeting after the meeting (IYKYK).
These documents are business narratives, each written to report on performance, economic conditions, and strategy for the year ahead.
They are notoriously simple but drive alignment across tens of thousands of investors and employees, not to mention thousands of other business nerds (like yours truly), who love to read and learn from them.
Assuming I've convinced you that narrative writing is a great way to clarify your thinking, increase productivity, and scale communications, here's a simple framework from the book Good Strategy/Bad Strategy you can utilize for a one-pager of your own.
When confronting a problem or a challenge, frame out the following items in writing:
- A diagnosis - what is the business opportunity or problem we need to solve?
- A guiding policy - the remedy for the diagnosed issue above
- Coherent actions - specific steps we will take to execute the plan
Here's a hypothetical (and simplified) example:
Diagnosis: Only 15% of our customers are on multi-year contracts. Increasing this to 65% will reduce the renewals we negotiate each year and improve gross retention by up to two percentage points in the next 12 months.
Guiding policy: We will offer our customers compelling pricing incentives to encourage multi-year renewals over one-year renewals. Customers can choose the option that best balances their needs relative to price and term length.
- Develop pricing matrix for one, two, and three-year renewal options
- Build standard messaging and talk tracks for CSMs and renewal managers
- Revise renewal notices to include new language around multi-year offers
- Define negotiation limits and approvals for renewal managers
- Train renewals and customer success teams on the new approach
- Offer new renewal quotes to customers beginning in Q2
Keep it simple. Don't overthink it.
But, do it.
The biggest personal effectiveness and corporate productivity gains come from subtle but powerful adjustments in how we work.
Writing more is one of those subtle adjustments that will make every leader better.
What's one project you're working on that would benefit from a one-pager?
💡 Weekly Favorites
Here are some of my favorite podcasts, blogs, and videos from the week (all about writing):
- Clear Writing Means Clear Thinking - an oldie but goodie from HBR, 1973.
- The Writing Is Thinking Philosophy - why thinking and writing are symbiotic activities.
- More detail on Amazon's approach to "writing it down." How Amazonians Share Their Ideas. Amazon's views on writing are extreme, and there are dissenters. But from a first principles perspective, Bezos still has it right, IMHO.
Enjoy, and I'll see you next week.
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