How Writers are Building the Companies of the Future

Lessons from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and WordPress’ Matt Mullenweg

Memo Unsplash
Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash

Jeff Bezos has added 70 billion dollars to his fortune since the start of the pandemic. While this is no doubt to no small degree thanks to the economics of the markets in which Amazon operates, it is also worthwhile to point out one aspect of the culture that Bezos has imparted to his management teams that make them particularly well adapted to virtual and remote work environments, and that is how he runs meetings.

Bezos’ rules for effective meetings

Bezos’ famous three rules for running effective meetings are:

  1. Two pizza teams
  2. No PowerPoint
  3. Start with silence

The two pizza rule is good for both face-to-face and virtual meetings, but for this analysis, let us focus on rules two and three.

Firstly, what is important about the no PowerPoint rule is not what you do not do in a meeting, but rather, what you do. Instead of a slide deck, Bezos requires that his teams write an up to six-page long, narratively structured memo. Yes, that’s real sentences, and verbs, and nouns, instead of bullet points.

In Bezos’ own words, “the great memos are written and rewritten, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, then edited again with a fresh mind. They simply can’t be done in a day or two.”

It is probably no coincidence that got its start in the book trade, given Bezos’ appreciation for the craftsmanship that goes into producing the written word, and its power as a tool to structure your thinking and shaping people’s minds.

Incidentally, that is exactly how writers work. James A. Michener, a Pulitzer Prize and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, put it best: “I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent re-writer.

Secondly, starting with silence in Amazon, means dedicating the first 15 to 30 minutes of the meeting to read the memo. As a corporate survivor, it used to frustrate me no end how some colleagues would show up and bluff their way through meetings, not having properly prepared for it. In Bezos’ meetings, time is prioritized and built-in to ensure people get acquainted and really engage with the material to be discussed.

So, here it is. The unglamorous secret to Bezos’ success: Reading and writing well.

Building the workplace of the future

Let us now turn to another successful tech entrepreneur for insights on why writing is so crucial for success in the remote workplace.

In many ways, Automattic, the company behind WordPress, Tumblr, among other staples of the Internet responsible for powering about one third of websites in the planet, is the company you would have designed if you could have predicted the Covid-19 pandemic.

Founder and CEO Matt Mullenweg presides over a distributed organization (Mullenweg’s preferred term for remote workplace) with over 1,300 employees spread in 79 countries. All without the need for a permanent physical headquarters.

It is an Automattic article of faith that communication is the oxygen of the company. So, how does an organization live up to its creed when its employees are scattered around the globe, and most of their interactions are digital?

Mullenweg, who as the CEO of a fast-growing company spends a considerable proportion of his time, one third specifically, recruiting new colleagues puts it thus: ”The first thing we look for is writing skills. Good writing reflects clear thinking.” It is not unusual for Mullenweg to hire people after a recruitment process based entirely on written communications.

The importance of writing in the distributed workplace can be better understood if we examine the framework Mullenweg uses to assess how advanced an organization is on its path towards distributed work.

Levels of distributed work

Autonomy, the degree to which you can decide how you do your work, is a key source for job satisfaction and driver of performance. This is why Mullenweg’s framework consists of five levels of distributed work achievement, measured by how much autonomy it affords the people working within it.

Image: Autonomy Levels of Distributed Work - Matt Mullenweg
Image: Autonomy Levels of Distributed Work – Matt Mullenweg
  • In level zero, you cannot do your work unless you are physically there.
  • Level 1: You can do some things remotely if you are in a pinch, thanks to your laptop, or phone.
  • Level 2: You copy on-site co-located ways of working into a remote setup.
  • Level 3: You start working remote first. For example, taking advantage of the native features of the technology, such as opening and working on the same document together while in a video conference.
  • Level 4: You start working asynchronously. That is to say, you do not require people to work in the same way, and at the same time, while enabling the seamless handover of tasks. What people produce becomes the focus, rather than how they produce it.
  • Level 5, which Mullenweg aspirationally calls Nirvana, is achieved when the distributed setup outperforms in-person interactions in all important aspects of work.

Asynchronous work

That so many jobs require work taking place in a co-located setting is a relatively recent development. An autonomy-restricting necessity introduced by industrialization and localized capital investments such as the assembly line. You had to come to work at a pre-determined time, and conform to a pre-defined process. The ability to work from home, or from wherever you choose for that matter, goes back to pre-industrial times, when people worked at their own pace, and how they best saw fit. In other words, they used to work more autonomously.

The challenge in an autonomous setup, is how to coordinate collaboration. How the baton is passed, so to say, once you complete your task, which then becomes an input for someone else’s assignment.

The answer in Mullenweg’s view, is good writing. And the difference between good and bad writing is as important for an organization’s success as that of a team’s baton passing technique in a relay race.

The growth mindset

Writing narratively can be daunting. There is no hiding behind your slide deck’s slick animations, nor the wiggle space that bullet points afford the presenter to read the room. Once you send the memo, you are committed in black on white. So, it is heartening when Mullenweg, a prolific blogger himself, says that to this day: ”Writing is still one of the most important, and the most difficult things that I do.”

The best way to approach this challenge, is to adopt a growth mindset. Just as early in this story, we gave away Bezos’ unglamorous secret for successful communication, writing and reading well, we also gave away his secret for writing well at the beginning of this story: You write, share, edit, then with a fresh mind, edit it again.

Keep at it, and the compounding effect of growth will take care of the rest.

Read the original story in Medium.

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