3 min read

Innovation at pace: decision making in 60 minutes

When I talk to people about how writing more can improve their rate of innovation, people often say, "I’ve written papers in the past but no one read them". That can be hugely frustrating and become a blocker to writing more in the future.
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Photo by Djim Loic on Unsplash

This is article is part of the "Building a Writing Culture" series

When I talk to people about how writing more can improve their rate of innovation, people often say, "I’ve written papers in the past but no one read them". That can be hugely frustrating and become a blocker to writing more in the future.

Amazon learned early on that no one was going to make time outside of a meeting to pre-read a paper, so they created reading time IN the meeting. Meetings don’t take all day, they usually last an hour.

How can this work?

At the start of the meeting the document is shared, and everyone silently reads. In those first 20 minutes so much carefully constructed information is transferred from the writer to the readers.

Every person in the meeting can comment on the document for the writer to read and review. Pre-covid, documents would often be printed (double sided and stapled), then handed around the meeting room, and the reader would add written comments throughout, including questions they wanted to ask or thoughts and ideas that occurred to them when they read the paper. Now teams use document collaboration tools like Quip.

By allowing people to read the full story they build comprehension. They can jot down questions or comments as they think of them. This is the reverse of watching a presentation, when you have to wait for the punchline (which is usually at the end). If you are like me, you will likely have a question on the third slide and have to wait a further 45 slides for the questions section. By that point I’ve either forgotten my question or have spent so long thinking about my question I wasn’t listening to the rest of the presentation!

Amazon’s writing style evolved to include BLUF – bottom line up front. This was the notion of summarising everything in the opening paragraph, including the ask, so if the reader didn’t feel the need to read further they didn’t have to. Obviously in a doc review meeting, it is unlikely that people will only read the first paragraph, but written well, the first paragraph makes people want to read on.

Once everyone has finished reading the discussion starts.

This discussion is about the idea put forward in the document (not the writing style or spelling choices). Often it starts with general comments about the document, before progressing to a page by page review of the specifics. The discussion is all about questioning assumptions and findings, building comprehension, and ultimately working towards making a decision. Creating these two distinct parts to a meeting, first reading, then discussing, creates a better flow. It gives everyone in the room the chance to digest the information in front of them. Discussion follows questions, which leads to the idea potentially changing, evolving, or even growing. At the end of the discussion, a decision is made.

I remember my first doc review meeting so vividly. I was of course really sceptical about how a big decision could be made in just an hour. In previous companies where I had worked, decisions took weeks or months to make. At Amazon, the discovery and analysis is done ahead of the meeting. This heavy lifting makes the decision easier to make. After 60 minutes the team behind the document walks away with a clear next step, and has likely built allies for the next phase too.

This speedy decision making is possible for two reasons. Firstly, a well written document is the perfect starting point and aids decision making. Secondly, with the right people in the room, it is pretty straightforward to get to the right outcome. Without the right people in the room, i.e.: the people who can ultimately make a decision, remove a blocker, collaborate with you, or provide you with the resources you need, you will end up in a vicious cycle of review after review.

My advice, whilst getting the document review ready is important, also think about who you need in the room. They may not all be champions of your idea. You actually want some of the objectors there, as their views will often make your idea stronger in the long run. Plus, if you have the blocker in the room with your supporters, you can have an open conversation about why they object and how to move forward.

Why not try it in your next meeting? People are often sceptical of change, but with a written document it’s a fairly safe experiment.

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