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1/ “Writing is thinking” is my favorite saying in “how to work” in a company. It is very interesting to dive into this a bit because I often get so much pushback, especially from startups and/or those focused on agility.
79 replies and sub-replies as of Apr 20 2018

Writing is super hard. It takes more time to write than it does to talk. It also takes more time to write a page of text than a single slide. Let’s look at one example, the paragraph on handstands from Jeff Bezos’ annual letter.
I made a slide in about 5 minutes that simulates what it would be like if I had this story in my head before a meeting (Note: I continue to live developing a perfect handstand). This is typically what you’d see in a team meeting on this topic.
We can see how much is lost. Think of this as a team trying to join in this lesson. Think about trying to share this lesson multiple times (management is repetition). Think about a new team member or partner who only has this slide. (Internet please do not fix my slide!)
Two real challenges in not writing this down. First, all the details are lost…forever. There’s no shared corporate history of why/how. Second, people can make up details to fill in bullet points. What came before (high standards)? How did that conclusion get reached?
The act of writing, forces the author to think through all the details and steps required to share the lesson. It avoids what happens in business all the time which is “I just know” or “experience” and brings along the team and other job functions on thinking.
Execution is in a constant state of “diverging” as more expertise deals with more details that fewer people understand. The act of writing forces a team of experts to share the details of goals—not just the what, but the why, what else was considered, the history, context.
Agility does not prevent or discourage writing. It is just that agility drives a view that “now is always better” and if that’s the high order bit, the time-consuming act of writing 500-5000 words feels “slow”. Writing is in fact a waterfall approach (write, share, edit, write…)
But what is missing from that logic is that the process of writing and sharing thoughts is clarifying AND collaborating itself. Execution actually speeds up when you spend the up front time to write.
Writing is more inclusive. It is easier to contribute, doesn’t reward bullies and bullshitters, and allows for contemplation. One note: for ESL, writing can be easier than speaking for many, but also sometimes difficult. Provide background assistance, avoid criticizing form.
So please, write. Writing is thinking. PS: As Jeff mentioned, yes you can write less than great. PPS: Yes, just because you write doesn’t mean it will work. And yes, not writing doesn’t mean it will fail. Business is a social science. Anything can happen.
PS/ No surprise, I know all the PowerPoint jokes (also real studies). Not against the format *at all*. Here’s the Gettysburg address in PowerPoint. theatlantic.com/technology/arc… (feel free to add the marriage proposal, the breakup, the Space Shuttle story, or anything from Tufte).
The Gettysburg Address as a Powerpoint
On the 150th anniversary of the speech, let's consider how the corporate world's native medium might improve it.
theatlantic.com
PPS/ Why don’t people write? Turns out writing is really sticking your neck out. Those details, facts, assumptions may be “rope” to hang you. So writing is culture. Everyone takes risks in writing. So don’t weaponize writing as a team by using it against ideas that didn’t work.
As a professional writer of different kinds, yes, I writing is sticking your neck out. It can take some gumption. As Tarantino said in the fourth of Four Rooms: “those who make declarative statements are more likely to look foolish in retrospect.”
Some people don’t want to take that chance. I’ve messed up little bits of writing and had literally thousands of angry readers. I apologize, exercise transparency and promise to be better.
This was really good! I find though that so many people don’t like to read which frustrates me. So I end up doing a Cliff Notes version of something I want the team to read.
Perfect example: as we iterate through Four Steps to the Epiphany, for the sake of speed, I summarized the questions we have to answer in the Customer Discovery phase into 9 pages. So much context lost though.
Writing is a religion, an ideology where... not everyone will always agree. Writing is taking a stance, making your opinion known. As the commentator below stated, “it takes gumption.” A lot of people don’t want to hear dissonance or cause dischord. This, they don’t write.
Writing is permanent. Spoken words are lower fidelity and quickly discarded from short term memory. But it's easier to speak than to think and write.
Workshops are a way of managing risk; all attendees are responsible for the outputs, and the facilitator need not have strong ideas of their own. Not against them if well led, but too many aren't.
unroll, please.
Forget PowerPoint, use email. A well-written email is a thing of beauty.
I am probably one of the few people you know who has actually been arrested for writing.
Also they don't appreciate at first what it buys you. When this started at Amazon, many people only saw the extra work it required. They came around when they realized how much it was actually improving their thinking
If I ever work in Amazon again, the writing part I will love.
*People are not computers. *Don't feed them lines of code *Drop the bullet-points *Practice your handstands How am I doing?
Many of the details, facts, assumptions are ropes to hang me, myself, even before others had the chance.
Great points! The flip side of this is finding time/creating time and culture of reading/ingesting knowledge and updating it over time. People within companies ‘read the headlines’ because they’re crunched for time.
Can you please put this into long-form? An important lesson!
Totally agreed writing is culture. It’s always been shocking to me how many people are just opposed on principle
YES YES YES. Writing is thinking. And real writing takes time. I set out to write Radical Candor thinking it would take 3 months. It took 4 years. It's only good b/c 100's of people criticized it, but did so not in a weaponized way, but in a generous & kind way.
Tufte fan from the 90s. bought his books; saw him present at a (long gone) tech book store in Santa Clara.
What clicked for me was comparison to solving math problems in head vs on paper. It’s so much easier to see the connections and flow of ideas, sometimes literally when you write
Totally agree. Learned that from Ted Lowi, back at Cornell. I can still see him telling me "You don't know what you're thinking until you right it down."
Bang on here Steven. If you can’t write it down, you haven’t thought about it enough.
This thread is dope 🔥🔥🔥🔥
Great thread. Particularly love that handstand paragraph though, because it also helps clarify that writing as thought takes practice too.
I love writing, so please bear that in mind when I say this: I know BRILLIANT people that just DON’T write. I think everything you wrote is true, but alternative paths are equally good.
Also, not everyone wants to (or will!) read a six page memo...
One of the many thing I love about working at Amazon is the culture of writing. Its really hard, but force you to think about the details in a way the the theatrics of .ppt never do. Its about the content, not the "show"
Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man. - Francis Bacon
This is such a good thread! I would just add one thing: writing/editing in a collaborative setting can actually be done in an agile way. Good editors can make that happen.
What’s lost is a lot of context... this is OK for a speaker, but for reading/absorption of information through reading, the audience doesn’t absorb the context of the writer
This is a bad comparison. Bezos says writing good six page memos requires weeks. This took you five minutes -- of course it conveys information less well! Your expectations/beliefs on how long it takes to write create good PPs do not align w/ reality.
It is the perfect comparison. No one spends weeks on a slide. That's why people like slides. And if they do it is on formatting/animations, images, and deleting even more words.
Then the issue is not the medium (PP vs. memo) but the time spent? Also, consultants will invest many hours on individual slides.
This looks like what I would write down before writing papers in college
Comparing this to the original narrative makes it very clear how PowerPoint destroys storytelling. Which @EdwardTufte pointed out long ago.
that pamphlet is ace
What’s interesting when seeing the bullets is realizing even culturally how many poc or women are seen as being verbose of they employ longer messaging but I’m like the story has soooo much more context. Less ambiguity.
Yes but after a while you get good at it, so cost of writing goes down with practice. Then if you are presenting the slide you gotta practice for what you are gonna say, with writing once it's done it's done. Doc stands on its own.
Loved this and it’s one of my biggest organizational beefs. Writing forces clarity, exposes holes in logic and strategy and adds critical color and context. Corporate America’s addiction to ppt bullets has done more damage to employee critical thinking than anything else!
This is such great insight! Sontag said, "The truth is always something that is told, not something that is known. If there were no speaking or writing, there would be no truth about anything. There would only be what is."
Being agile and iterative IS what drives quality, without compromising on the fact that it may be a long process to reach the end state. It is always surprising though how much can be achieved from a team aligned on short focused timeline.
Once you’ve worked at Amazon (or any other company that does this) and tried to write one narrative for review, you’ll come to appreciate it and begin to understand all the insights you just highlighted. Problem is people naturally don’t come to this realization until they do it
Wait...who's focused on agility?
I would like to add that story telling is a good way to sell something. If you have an idea you want to push, you have to go for story element with unique attention grabbing hook. Sometimes these ideas need to start with commonly agreeable fact to truly dive into bias of people
I might be projecting a smidge, but this thread is a good thread.
The biggest benefit is that it creates commitment and eliminates ambiguity (except when clever lawyers write a contract)
but this violates the "humanities are useless" principle cc @DearEnglishMjr
Reminds me of the classic “Gettysburg Address, PowerPoint version”
I began serious writing in 2007. It was transformative. I honestly believe I couldn't really think before then, despite being a professor of physics at the time.
While artifact lite is a pillar of agile a strong practice should encourage the right tools for the job. Writing is high on this list for communication coupled with information - so if you do it right writing is extremely important. Seeing it as a disposable artifact is what cuts
When you write, you access other part of your brain resources. You establish a dialogue with something else.
Terrific thread, no surprise coming from @stevesi. I started working on a Monday Note on the same theme… No longer sure I ought to. We’ll see.
You are such a devoted practitioner. So wonderful to contribute to all of our Monday mornings!
I second that. Please keep thinking and writing.