Thursday, June 06, 2013

Decision Narratives at Amazon

In this article by Drew Hansen as well as this one by Adam Lashinsky, we learn about an important facet of the decision-making process employed by Jeff Bezos and his top management team at Amazon.  Here's an excerpt from the latter article:

Meetings of his "S-team" of senior executives begin with participants quietly absorbing the written word. Specifically, before any discussion begins, members of the team -- including Bezos -- consume six-page printed memos in total silence for as long as 30 minutes. (Yes, the e-ink purveyor prefers paper. Ironic, no?) They scribble notes in the margins while the authors of the memos wait for Bezos and his minions to finish reading.

Amazon executives call these documents "narratives," and even Bezos realizes that for the uninitiated -- and fans of the PowerPoint presentation -- the process is a bit odd. "For new employees, it's a strange initial experience," he tells Fortune. "They're just not accustomed to sitting silently in a room and doing study hall with a bunch of executives." Bezos says the act of communal reading guarantees the group's undivided attention. Writing a memo is an even more important skill to master. "Full sentences are harder to write," he says. "They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking."

The use of narratives at Amazon reminds me of this article written many years ago in Harvard Business Review about strategic planning at 3M.   The innovative industrial conglomerate had adopted the use of storytelling during its strategic planning.   In the article, the authors explained that bullet points on Powerpoint slides have several deficienciesBullet point lists often prove rather generic, fail to clarify causal relationships, and leave crucial assumptions unstated.   One manager quoted in the article explains, "If you read just bullet points, you may not get it, but if you read a narrative plan, you will.  If there's a flaw in the logic, it glares right out at you.  With bullets, you don't know if the insights is really there, or if the planner has merely given you a shopping list."  Stories or narratives enable you to think more holistically, and they provide the basis for a more thoughtful dialogue and debate.  Finally, stories prove much more compelling than lists.  If we hope to persuade others that a strategy makes sense, a good story works much more effectively than a set of bullet points. 

1 comment:

Carlin Robinson said...

Thanks Mike. I am absolutely going to use this strategy with my colleagues. My very first manager in this business, and the one who has had the biggest impact on me to date, always asked - do you have a story to tell? Thanks for bringing me back to a great time in my career.
Carlin Robinson