Key takeaways:

Bezos is under no pressure to conform – he can say what he really believes works.

Writing prose cuts through vacuous presentations and forces leaders to think harder.

A well-written 6-page memo, read in silence, makes for a high-quality meeting.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has found a way to make executives think harder for longer in meetings. Could it work for all companies, asks David Bolchover?

At what pace should we work? High-powered business people, according to the stereotype, work quickly and efficiently. Indeed, the adjective ‘busy’ is never far from the noun ‘executive.’ Working slowly and systematically, on the other hand, is what lofty academics or fishing enthusiasts do, far removed from the cut and thrust of making money.

But it seems that Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, has other ideas. He makes his executives think hard about specific business problems, and then write down what they have figured out in several pages of clear prose.

In other words, he has dismissed the long-held notion that the truly commercial mind should only engage in ‘high-level’ or ‘top-line’ brevity. While many ambitious managers think that rushing around at breakneck speed is a mark of business acumen, the man worth some US$ 130 billion is saying that they are focusing on image over substance.

In a letter to shareholders, Bezos revealed that his people ‘don’t do PowerPoint.’ Instead, executives are asked to create six-page memos, with real sentences and verbs, which are then read in silence by all participants at the start of each meeting. This, he says, forms the basis for ‘a high-quality discussion.’

As the American poet Robert Frost once observed: ‘The brain is a wonderful organ. It starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get into the office.’ The transition from hectic ‘working’ to deep thinking may not come easily to those who have not taxed their grey matter since college days.

For Bezos, the discipline of reading and writing prose generates nuggets of wisdom. ‘The reason that writing a four-page memo is harder than “writing” a 20-page PowerPoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what, and how things are related,’ he says. ‘PowerPoint-style presentations somehow give permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas.’

‘The brain is a wonderful organ. It starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get into the office.’

Robert Frost

The Bezos approach is undoubtedly time consuming. Reading memos at the start of meetings lasts for 30 minutes; the writing itself can take weeks. ‘The great memos are written and rewritten, 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,’ he says. ‘They simply can’t be done in a day or two.’

Supremely successful self-made business people such as Bezos are worth listening to. Not especially because of their success per se; others will have more experience in office management. But because he and other self-made multi-billionaires are under no pressure to conform to the norms of office life, and can say what they really think. A salaried bureaucrat might baulk at rocking the boat and endangering his sinecure; a rich entrepreneur is only interested in efficiency and profit.

Festina Lente

Bezos is certainly his own man. But on the subject of reading and writing, is he correct? One could argue that the methodical pace he advocates is more suited to a company such as Amazon, which faces no real competitive threat. By contrast, vulnerable firms, especially fast-growing start-ups, might see this as a luxury. They are under pressure to hurry their latest innovation onto the market and adapt quickly to the customer’s response.

What is harder to argue against is that the process of writing and editing prose forces one to think more deeply, rigorously test one’s ideas, and stop hiding behind vacuous presentations or a disarming manner. Indeed, by forcing leaders to think harder before they act, they are less likely to end up having to rip up a bad idea and start all over again. In the end, they may save more time and money.

David Bolchover is an award-winning business journalist and author of three books on management and the workplace.

This article was written for FT|IE Corporate Learning Alliance.
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