Distillations in this newsletter: Building a writing culture for strategy; Moonshots or roofshots? … from Google; Five free hardback copies of The Strategy Manual; Strategy Distilled – free pdf compilation
A monthly concoction of insight, learning and things you might have missed for anyone who works on strategy, works with strategy or just loves strategy.
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This month …
- Building a writing culture for strategy.
- Strategy snippets you might have missed: Moonshots or roofshots? … from Google; Five free hardback copies of The Strategy Manual.
- Strategy Distilled – free pdf compilation: The first two years of Strategy Distilled compiled into an 88-page pdf – free to subscribers.
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Building a writing culture for strategy
When I first came across the idea of building a writing culture within organisations, I hugely underestimated its importance. This was probably Amazon’s fault. As with so many things that are written about Amazon, the myth tends to obscure the underlying value. Amazon’s approach, at first, sounds prescriptive, dogmatic and idiosyncratic: all (and they did mean all) proposals for support for an innovative idea needed to be presented as a ‘Press Release / Frequently Asked Questions’ (PR/FAQ) for the new product or service, as if it was ready for launch, accompanied by a 6-page memo explaining, contextualising and justifying the innovation.
Digging into it a little, however, soon reveals the underlying value.
“Most of Amazon’s major products and initiatives since 2004 have one very Amazonian thing in common— they were created through a process called Working Backwards. Working Backwards is a process to vet ideas and create products or services. Its key tenet is to start by defining the customer experience, then iteratively work backwards from that point until the team achieves clarity of thought around what to build. Its principal tool is a written narrative called the PR/FAQ, short for press release/frequently asked questions. The PR/FAQ is written for the customer in a language a customer can understand. The process ensures that the customer is top of mind throughout the entire journey of turning an idea into a product or service for the company. You start with the customer and work backwards, rather than starting with an idea for a product and trying to bolt customers onto it”.
And here is how Bezos himself described the 6-page memo:
“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 start of each meeting in a kind of “study-hall”. Readers […] know a [great memo] when they see it […] 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 […] a great memo probably should take a week or more.”
Distilling the essence of Amazon’s writing practice provides some great advice for strategy development. Get everyone involved in strategy development to present their proposed ideas for inclusion in the new strategy in writing and in two distinct ways:
- Explain how the world will be a better place (or your customers will be happier or your company will be more profitable, depending on the level of ambition of your strategy), once your proposed idea for the new strategy has succeeded. This should be concise, compelling and persuasive. It is more the language of advertising than a business case.
- Then comes a longer, more rigorous explanation, contextualisation and justification of your proposed idea for the new strategy. This should be systematic, logical, in-depth and evidence-based. It is more a business case than the language of advertising.
Should you ban slides? To me, that seems to put visual-thinkers at a huge disadvantage and may even exclude considerable amount of graphic and symbolic communication from strategy development … it is just so much harder to develop visual concepts in software designed to process text (looking at you, Word!).
Should your detailed strategy proposal be exactly 6 pages long? Of course not. But it shouldn’t be one page – that won’t be enough detail. And it shouldn’t be twenty pages – you haven’t distilled your thinking rigorously enough.
And should you expect everyone to be proficient writers from the start? No; building a writing culture takes every bit as long as developing any aspect of organisational culture. It needs to be nurtured into existence.
Stripe, the payments platform, describe themselves as a company focused on numbers but, despite this, they have built an enviable writing culture. Here is what they learned in the process:
“To develop a culture that embraces writing and documentation: lead by example; know when to standardize internal writing and when not to; make your documents easy to read; develop a support system that encourages and empowers everyone to write. These are the building blocks from which any company can build a culture where writing and documentation become second nature.”
Once you have built that culture, the advantages for the organisation, again from Stripe, are:
- Time efficiency. Sharing ideas through writing eliminates the need for repetitive verbal updates to disseminate ideas and information.
- Knowledge sharing. Documenting important ideas forces clarity of thought and makes information more accessible to everyone in the company, versus slide decks that are ephemeral and require less rigor of thought.
- Communication. Clear writing requires clear thinking, meaning employees invest more time shaping their ideas before sharing them.
As far as strategy is concerned, building a writing culture seems like an ambition well worth the perseverance.
To go deeper into this notion of building a writing culture, Justin Garrison’s article The Document Culture of Amazon does a great job of explaining Amazon’s writing culture, whereas Salman Paracha’s The perils of a writing culture — the Amazon hammer to decision making is more critical and questions the value of aspects of it. Also, Slab.com’s blog has articles on the writing cultures at Stripe (cited above), Loom, Glossier and Shopify, as well as a more general article on writing in the workplace.
Strategy snippets you might have missed
Moonshots or roofshots?
In the Roofshot Manifesto, written in 2016, Luiz Andre Barroso, a VP of Engineering at Google, said:
“Don’t get me wrong. I want flying drones that can bring me fresh produce. I’m excited about contact lenses that measure blood sugar. And I look forward to the day that self-driving cars are on the road everywhere. These initiatives are examples of some visionary programs being pursued by Google and Alphabet teams, collectively referred to as moonshots – disruptive, 10X leaps in technology. But there has been a growing perception that moonshots are the primary model for radical innovation at Google, and chiefly responsible for our greatest product and technical achievements. What I have seen during my 15 years at Google does not match that perception. I contend that the bulk of our successes have been the result of the methodical, relentless, and persistent pursuit of 1.3-2X opportunities – what I have come to call “roofshots.”
A great question for all of us to reflect upon in our strategic thinking – just how high do we reach with our strategic aspirations?
This week 3 years ago, I published the Strategy Manual …
… and to celebrate, I’m offering 5 of you lovely Strategy Distilled subscribers a free hardback copy. Just send me your name and postal address!
Strategy Distilled – FREE pdf compilation
In case you missed it, I have published a compilation of all my articles and ‘strategy snippets’ from the first two years of my Strategy Distilled newsletter. This 88-page pdf contains 24 articles and 53 ‘snippets’, all with links to source material, covering all aspects of strategy, from ‘how to think big in strategy’ and strategy innovation to strategy metrics and the role of values.
STRATEGY ARTICLES – examples:
- How strategy actually works
- Separating strategy from strategic planning
- The case for strategy scoping
- Justifying stakeholder consultation in strategy development
- Managing innovation within strategy
- Can Ikigai reveal the four deficiencies of strategy?
- Leading and lagging indicators as strategy metrics
SNIPPETS ON STRATEGY YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED – examples:
- Google’s ‘Simplicity Sprint’
- How risky is innovation in your organisation?
- McKinsey’s Seven Step Problem-Solving Process
- Connecting strategy and culture
- What the Beatles can teach us about strategy
- What kind of strategist are you?
The pdf is FREE to subscribers – download your copy now. If you think ‘Strategy Distilled’ would be of value to friends and colleagues, get them to sign up here and they will be sent the compilation straight away.
Goal Atlas gives you structured processes and tools to ensure strategy is adopted and impactful across your organisation. Get in touch if you think we might be able to help.
If you enjoyed reading this newsletter, don’t forget to forward it to friends or colleagues who might also find it of interest.
Was this forwarded to you? Sign-up
Discover the content of past issues of Strategy Distilled.