Jeff Bezos may be the only person in the world who knows how to run both a hyper-growth start-up and a massive listed corporation. At the very least he’s the only CEO who knows how to do both at the same time.
Amazon is the standout example of 21st century capitalism. From its 1990s origins as a glorified mail order book reseller operating out of the garage of Bezos’s suburban Seattle home, it became the world’s most valuable business for the first time last year, and continues to jostle for the position.
Time is on its side: turnover stands at over $280bn, and rarely grows at less than 25 per cent per annum. By the middle of the decade, it’s likely to do more trade than even Wal-Mart.
There are various strands of Amazon’s DNA that could explain its success, from a relentless obsession with the customer (often to the detriment of other stakeholders) to the way it uses data to make decisions, its unusually high tolerance for failure and its pugnacious corporate culture.
One underrated feature stands out to me though: the process by which Amazon makes decisions. It all started in June 2004, when Bezos banned bullet points and PowerPoint at a senior leadership level.
Instead of presentations, Bezos began iterating an approach to sharing information that involves writing memos of running copy, between two and six pages long. Meetings typically begin in silence as all participants sit and read the memo for up to half an hour before discussing it.
The original email from Bezos explaining the decision is preserved in Ram Charan and Julia Yang’s book The Amazon Management System:
“Well-structured, narrative text is what we’re after, rather than just text. If someone builds a list of bullet points in Word, that would be just as bad as PowerPoint.
“The reason writing a good four-page memo is harder than 'writing' a 20-page PowerPoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what, and how things are related.
“PowerPoint-style presentations somehow give permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas.”
To many people this will seem counterintuitive. After all, communication in general is increasingly visual and attention-grabbing; you’d expect a forward-thinking business like Amazon to use snazzy videos rather than 2,500 word essays.
You’d also expect such an agile firm to have a method of information-sharing that was quick; these memos, Charan and Yang point out, can take a week to put together, involving several redrafts and edits both from the original author and their wider team.
But Bezos’s point is that the time taken to think through ideas properly is hardly wasted, because it saves time - and headaches - later. It’s far better, after all, to iron out logical inconsistencies and to prioritise clearly before you commit resources to execution.
He also favours the memo over oral presentation because the latter tends to encourage interruptions, and to reward rhetorical ability (and the slickness of one’s slide deck) as much as the content. Other people’s opinions of the content, meanwhile, can be influenced subconsciously by how the rest of the room reacts. With long-form copy, there isn’t really anywhere to hide.
There’s another value to the memo, albeit one that doesn’t have quite so universal a benefit. Since the 1970s, there’s been extensive research into learning types - a simplified way of looking at it is that some people absorb information better by seeing, others by listening, others by reading, others by doing. Presentations disadvantage the readers among us.
Of course, the reverse could be said about memos, so perhaps it’s time to experiment with different styles of information-sharing, to allow different personality types to participate fully.
At the very least, questioning how you do meetings, exchange information and make decisions has to be a good thing, even if in the end you decide you’re just a little too fond of your PowerPoint prowess to give it up altogether. What a business like Amazon teaches you above all is never to accept the status quo just for the sake of it.
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