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The point of writing things down is that you are forced to think about them
a long winded point on why I love writing memos
My point of view is that western formal education is deeply broken and is more about parking kids somewhere than teaching.
For example, schools banning ChatGPT because it makes too easy to do homeworks, it’s like a math teacher that ban calculators: it means that the teachers are quite incompetent.
But my wife has already heard enough rants about formal education so I will stop here and focus on “creative writing” in school.
In school, writing essays is about length and about creativity, not about research and clear writing. Those things are not part of teaching, nobody tells you “write a clear and concise review of this topic, please cite your sources” no, the homework is “Write a 5-pages essay on your vacations” something so dumb that I always got in trouble in high school for refusing to comply with forced length.
Eventually my teacher gave up on me and told my mum that I write “like a scientist” (hironically scientific papers are one of the worst type of writing you can find).
Beside my own feelings about essays, I think that formal education doesn’t teach the most important lesson: the process of writing is a recursive process of learning.
That is, you cannot write about something clearly and concisely if it’s not clear and concise in your head, and it’s not going to be clear and concise in your head if you don’t write it down first.
The point of internal memos
Jeff Bezos memos to shareholders and Amazon 6-pager policy are so well known that I don’t have to spend any time telling you about how that.
But why those things work so well for Amazon and why you should care?
Slide decks are knowledge sharing theater
How many times have you been in a meeting in which someone is presenting a bunch of slides that are mostly pointless? Too many if you ask me.
How many times have you done any work to prepare on the topic? How many times a sensible discussion spawned from a giant slide deck? I guess almost zero.
This is what is sometimes called “death by powerpoint”, and is something consultants at big firms love, because it allows them to show that they worked on something but not actually do any meaningful work.
Slides are ideal in a one-way knowledge sharing setting, in which the speaker needs to tell a story to the audience and make sure they do their research later to deep dive (or maybe buy their product).
But slide presentations are not a way to discuss a topic in a meeting:
Information dense slides are unreadable
the presentation format takes a long time and doesn’t allow any meaningful time for discussion and feedback
there is no time to prepare on the topic, and therefore is hard to come up with sensible questions and discussions
And this format was never designed for it.
One might say, ok I understand your concern, I will share my slides in advance. That is essentially getting the worst of both worlds.
Ditch the slides, embrace the blank paper
It follows that, if you want to have better conversations around a complex topic and reduce the time you waste in meeting, another format is needed.
This is the conclusion that Jeff Bezos reached at Amazon: send me a detailed document about a topic and then we discuss it in a meeting.
But blank papers are scary, Amazon provides a famous template for this but I feel that a simpler approach is needed if you want to get into the habit.
So this is the format I personally use to write internal memos (one or two pages):
In this section I answer the question “why should I read this?” and also lay down all the basic concepts needed to understand the memo. This is important to avoid confusion once you start explaining the core concepts.
The problem / The idea
Now we deep dive into which problem we want to solve, or which idea we want to develop, this section should be very detailed and explain very well why this problem is worth solving / this idea is worth developing.
The proposed solution / plan
Here’s the main section, you are here to ask for something (a budget, an approval, buy-in) so this is where you want to write down very clearly your main point and especially any request for resources.
Alternative solutions / Drawbacks / Reasons to not proceed
Here the real power of memo’s come into full force, you need to show you thought about this as well! It’s very easy to go into a room to sell an idea you like, can you demonstate that you thought about what happens next? Or if we don’t do this at all?
As you can see this is a pretty simple structure but it gives you another benefit of memos: show that you did reasearch and thought deeply about a topic instead of just throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks.
Culture and discipline are not secondary
In the weekly leadership team meetings at Aidence we faced the same problem I outlined in this post, so we switched to a meeting format in which live presentations were banned and only pre-read were acceptable to leave 100% of the time for questions and discussion.
I wish I could say this was easy and worked perfectly fine but it’s not true:
The memo format was hard to accept for many people, so we also accepted dense slide decks, especially for regular updates on KPIs that could use a more visual representation
Pre-reads should have been delivered the day before, but this was not always the case, leaving us to scramble to find time to read and comment the documents
Not everybody made the time to read the documents in advance, so we happily reserved some time to read the documents in the meeting (a la Amazon)
But it was much better of what we had before and I think every leadership team should at least experiment with this format.
Why you should adopt it now
One big reason for writing things down is to clarify your thoughts, especially for intuitive minds like mine is very easy to be carried away by your own bright idea and lose track of all the downsides and alternative paths around you.
And there are benefits also for the people around you:
it shows that you put in the work and you are committed to it, so it gives more confidence that you will see it through to the end
it allows the people around you to understand the concept better, give you better feedback (since now they can do it at their own leisure) and read the sources to avoid asking the same question over again
it gives time to buy into your idea, and all meaningful ideas need buy-in regardless of the size of the company
The impact of LLMs
If you haven’t, please read this masterpiece article from Ted Chiang (my favorite conteporary writer): ChaGPT is a blurry JPEG of the web.
That article is fully of ideas around generative AI and it has also an interesting point about writing and why we write (Chiang is also a technical writer in Silicon Valley).
One risk that many people talk about is that people will start using GPT-like systems to write memos and all the benefits above will be gone, rendering memos completely useless.
But is it really a risk? What’s the diffence between using GPT to write a memo and copy-paste some “best practices” from McKinsey?
The only difference is that McKinsey has much better marketing.