Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek.
I just went on Amazon to buy a book I wanted.
Amazon told me that, even though I’m a Prime member, it could only deliver the book in a week’s time.
I think I know why. Everyone at Amazon is too busy perfecting memos.
I’m moved to this troubled thought by an absorption of Jeff Bezos’s latest letter to shareowners.
It’s long, but I worry it didn’t take him very long to write.
First, Bezos bathed in the idea that Amazon has unreasonably high standards. These he compared to learning how to do handstands — really good handstands.
In a variation on Malcolm Gladwell’s famed 10,000 hours of practice to become world-class at something — which some say was just marketing shtick — Bezos explained that it takes six months to learn really good handstands.
Oh, and a week to write a great memo.
Amazon, you see, doesn’t do PowerPoint and the like. It does six-page “narratively structured” memos.
Here’s Bezos’s memo-rable theory of memos:
Often, when a memo isn’t great, it’s not the writer’s inability to recognize the high standard, but instead a wrong expectation on scope: they mistakenly believe a high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more! They’re trying to perfect a handstand in just two weeks, and we’re not coaching them right. The great memos are written and re-written, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind. They simply can’t be done in a day or two. The key point here is that you can improve results through the simple act of teaching scope — that a great memo probably should take a week or more.
I’m so relieved he threw the probably in there.
I suspect, though, that he meant really.
Bezos insists that in meetings, as people read these memos silently in a sort of study group atmosphere, the reaction to explaining why the great memos are great is the same as that of Justice Potter Stewart in Jacobelli vs Ohio when considering pornography: “I know it when I see it.”
I’m sure that this works for Amazon. Except, of course, when it doesn’t.
Please imagine, though, how different the company’s approach is from, say, that of Elon Musk.
Musk yesterday explained why meetings should be short and infrequent. For Bezos, however, they appear to begin with Book Club.
The participants all silently read a six-page memo. Then they discuss it.
I’m giddy at the very thought.
Oh, I’m not sure the writer should have used repugnant there. I prefer repulsive.
Yeah, and I really think that paragraphs 23 and 24 are the wrong way around.
For me, there were too many adjectives and not enough adverbs. I think of Amazon as a quintessentially adverbial company.
Of course what Bezos is saying is that it’s worth getting a second-opinion on what you write and thinking about it for a while.
Then again, that second opinion may or may not be helpful. It might send you down the path of memo by committee.
(Bezos even believes it takes teamwork to write a great memo. I’m sure no politics ever invades that process.)
And on occasion, if you think about something too much, you’ll second guess yourself into muddled oblivion.
The talent surely lies in knowing when something’s done. Which could be after, oh, an hour.
At heart, though, all he’s describing is how he thinks things (should) work at Amazon.
How on earth, some might grunt, does he know how long it took to write a particular memo? Do employees have to confess? Is their memo-writing secretly surveilled? Does each team have a designated memo-snitch?
It all reminds me of high school where some people used to say before an exam that they’d studied for 14 hours a day. It was as if to intimidate you.
Who knows what they did during those 14 hours? Who knows if they actually studied for two hours a day and played games for the other 12?
Some people write slowly, some write quickly. Some write quickly and the end result is bilge. Some write slowly and produce lyrical joy.
Or the other way around.
The sad core of Bezos’s belief is that it takes a certain amount of time to do something really well.
All this may reveal is that he — like so many current tech-bending leaders — is deeply fond of data.
I wonder what the memo outlining the Amazon Fire Phone read like.
Tolstoy, I imagine.
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