2 min read

Did Amazon create a writing culture to simply save money?

Person sits on leather armchair with a laptop balanced on their lap. On the floor is a large clock painted on the floor.
Photo by Kevin Ku on Unsplash

Lately I've been thinking about why Amazon really moved away from PowerPoint and started getting people to write more documents. What if it wasn't about writing at all, but writing was simply a good mechanism to cut down on wasted time (and money)?

Amazon has a writing culture. People and teams write hundreds of documents every year, but for me it isn't really about the writing. It's about the thinking that writing forces. It forces the thinking part of the decision making process to be done earlier and in the cheapest part of the cycle.

In most companies decision making happens in meeting rooms, or via something like Teams, Zoom, or Chime. Loads of people gather around to throw ideas about or review a PowerPoint with a few words on a screen. The problem may be well defined, but often not. What happens is that you have a lot of expensive people doing a lot of thinking, in real time. Meetings get delayed until you find that golden hour when all "key parties" can gather. Often little to nothing happens, and more and more meetings are called for. I'm sure we have all been there.

What writing does is move the thinking part earlier.

Writing forces thought, often by a smaller number of people, or even a single individual. This person thinks about the problem and possible solutions, and writes them down. If they are good, they will articulate these in a way that others can read with ease. The reader can get to grips with the problem and then be in a position to suggest ways to approach the next phase of discovery or even suggest ways to overcome and fix the problem.

Not all document needs to be reviewed. Sometimes ideas are just canned, and documents save time reviewing pointless ideas. Other times there is only one solution (so why do you need to discuss this?)

My first doc review at Amazon seemed magical, because in 60 minutes a decision was made. The doc that was shared gathered all the critical points together and told a story others could understand. It wove in data to highlight the size of the problem, and posed the critical questions the key decision makers needed to focus on. In 60 minutes, next steps were agreed and work continued. No further meeting was required.

The most important document I ever wrote took me 3 months to write. It was about an emerging political issue that had a lot of known unknowns. The document I wrote took all these and laid them out with three possible options. The review lasted 45 minutes and in it sat a VP, two directors, and 3 senior managers (I'll let you add up the cost). I had probably spent about 100 hours researching, speaking to experts across finance, legal, network infrastructure and many others to write as succinct a 6-pager as I could. Then in one 45 minute meeting me and my team had agreement from senior leadership on our suggested approach.

This is just one example, but I wonder how much time and money Amazon has saved since they introduced their writing culture in 2005? And could this be part of the secret sauce that has unlocked record breaking growth?

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