I once encountered a CEO who didn’t like writing. He also didn’t like reading. He didn’t like emails or even having to look something up in the phone book. He despised – and resented – the written word. He probably burned books in his spare time.
This CEO framed his dislike of the written word as a simple preference for verbal interactions. More importantly, he framed writing as inferior, excessively formal and unnecessary in today’s business climate.
And that attitude trickled down throughout the whole organisation. Memos, reports and taking minutes at meetings were out. Stand-up conversations and lightning-quick meetings in the lunch room were in.
Unsurprisingly, the organisation was in a perpetual state of chaos. Nobody knew what their own responsibilities were, the left hand didn’t even know that the right hand existed let alone what it was doing, and the goal posts moved around constantly as if they were on castors.
The sort of people who thrived in that environment were loud talking, zero action types whose attention-seeking presence conjured up a false image of achievement and success. But nothing ever really got done. Projects were constantly stuck in the pipeline, sometimes for years at a time.
That CEO – and his company of chaos – came to mind when I read this article quoting Amazon founder Jeff Bezos on the importance of writing.
Senior team meetings at Amazon begin with staff members quietly reading six-page printed (printed!) memos in silence for half an hour. Bezos believes that the act of communal reading guarantees the group’s undivided attention. (It also weeds out those irritating people who turn up to a meeting unprepared – because prep is done at the actual meeting.)
“There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking,” Bezos says.
I feel like the written word is often run down in today’s business climate in favour of the verbal, informal and unstructured approach. Disruption, they cry! Innovation, they say! Calling for formality and structure isn’t trendy, but there remains an argument for it.
Written documents make sure everyone is on the same page. Everyone is singing from the same song sheet. Everyone knows what their responsibilities are. It increases accountability, it invites feedback and it pushes for clear thinking.
With illiteracy in New Zealand, at least, a pressing problem (a 2008 study found 40 per cent of the working population were below the minimum level required to participate in a modern economy), and with young people preferring text-speak over complete words and sentences, the ability to write could become more valued (and rarer) than ever.
Do you prefer an informal, verbal, unstructured approach? Could you bring more structured thinking and clarity to your organisation by ditching the dislike of the written word? As Intel CEO Andy Grove says, “Reports are more a medium of self-discipline than a way to communicate information.” The opposite of self-discipline? Chaos.