3 min read

Tenets: the writing super-decider everyone needs

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Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash

This is the third article in the "Building a Writing Culture" series.

Do you ever feel like you are on a merry-go-round, discussing the same topic over and over again? It’s like the topic is glue and every discussion just sticks to it. Have you ever stopped to think why this happens or found a way to move past the sticking point?

I’ve found that it usually happens when people aren’t clear about why your team or product exists. One of the first programmes I worked on at Amazon was shaping the onboarding experience for newly hired software development engineers (SDEs). We ran a 1.5 day bootcamp covering everything from culture to tooling. SDEs loved it. New joiners from other job families also wanted to come along and learn, including software development managers, technical program managers and quality assurance engineers. But the feedback from these other new joiners was that the content was a little too SDE specific.

Every quarter we would review the feedback from the bootcamp and our team would discuss at length the negative comments from other technical job families. There were discussions about whether to create other role specific variants or make the content less SDE centric. We just couldn’t make a decision stick. So we introduced a new tenet.

The SDE Bootcamp is primarily for software developers. We will not restrict other job families from attending but the content will be focused on our primary customer and their needs.

This may sound a little harsh, but SDEs made up 90% of attendees, and our programme team was so small we couldn’t feasibly scale multiple different variants for other job families.

Amazon loves tenets, as do I. (Although disclaimer, I don’t enjoy writing them). They tend to be pretty contentious when you are writing them, and they need to go through several rounds of reviews. But when you get them right, they are worth their weight in diamonds!

What are tenets? Why are they so special?

A team charter will describe what a team does, whereas tenets describe how they do it.

Tenets are a set of principles or beliefs that are there to guide decision making. Tenets will help a team make decisions and trade-offs. They are widely used at Amazon and are subject to great debate. Teams usually include the phrase “unless you know better ones” because they will evolve over time, as a product or customer base matures or when the team keeps battling a recurring question or problem.

Good tenets can be written in a way that emphasises one value over another, for example, "we value speed over accuracy". They can be foundational, describing why the team or product exists, or aspirational, describing how a team or product intends to operate in the future. Tenets should help drive the right decision making process across the team.

If you are stuck on the merry-go-round with a question or issue why not try writing some tenets. The time spent getting the tenets right will save time in the long term. Even better to include these tenets in future documents you write, to refamiliarise your reader with why your team exists and how you are delivering.

Bonus content: I like to practise what I write, so I decided it’s time to face my fear and draft an initial set of tenets for writing. If you know better ones, leave them in the comments and let’s create an awesome set together

Examples of Tenets

Tenets for writing (unless you know better ones)

  1. Narratives should be timely - it is better to present a doc that is “good enough” at the right time, than a perfect document too late
  2. Documents are stand-alone - they shouldn’t require an introduction, accompanying presentation, or glossary to understand what is written
  3. The document is not the end product, it’s a starting point to drive a decision to begin the next phase of your project, product, or business
  4. If questioning what decision a meeting is driving towards, write a document to frame the discussion. If you can’t write the document, cancel the meeting.
  5. Feedback is a gift - we welcome feedback on our writing as it helps us hone our skill and write better documents in the future.

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