Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Jeff Bezos Says: Give Strategic Decisions Time, and Don't Overuse PowerPoint

While both PowerPoint and Word memoranda can be the right way to deliver a message, I've seen that sometime PowerPoint is more likely to hide flaws and gaps in the reasoning or the argument.

It's been said for many years that "Amazon Bans PowerPoint" and that they start meetings off with written memos and a five minute reading session. 

In his 2018 letter to shareholders, Bezos devoted some additional thinking to these topics.   He begins by using the example of someone who wants to do free handstands (no wall).  Experts say this takes six months to do perfectly, not a week or two.  Bezos says if you think it takes a week, the project is dramatically under-resourced.   He refers to handstands in the following section.  See the full letter online at SEC (here).

Unrealistic beliefs on scope – often hidden and undiscussed – kill high standards. To achieve high standards yourself or as part of a team, you need to form and proactively communicate realistic beliefs about how hard something is going to be – something the [gymnastics] coach understood well. 
Six-Page Narratives 

We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon. Instead, we write narratively structured six-page memos. We silently read one at the beginning of each meeting in a kind of “study hall.” Not surprisingly, the quality of these memos varies widely. Some have the clarity of angels singing. They are brilliant and thoughtful and set up the meeting for high-quality discussion. Sometimes they come in at the other end of the spectrum. 
In the handstand example, it’s pretty straightforward to recognize high standards. It wouldn’t be difficult to lay out in detail the requirements of a well-executed handstand, and then you’re either doing it or you’re not. The writing example is very different. The difference between a great memo and an average one is much squishier. It would be extremely hard to write down the detailed requirements that make up a great memo. Nevertheless, I find that much of the time, readers react to great memos very similarly. They know it when they see it. The standard is there, and it is real, even if it’s not easily describable. 
Here’s what we’ve figured out. 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.
Bezos summarizes, great work "simply can't be done in a day or two."  Years ago, in a quote I've forgotten, one of the famous 20th century judges, like Cardozo or Brandeis, made the same point in an essay about hard judicial opinions.  His strong point was, after hearing the case, after reading the briefs, the final decision ...just...took...time.  Pretty much the same point Bezos is making in a business context above.