How Narratives Improve Ideas And Decisions

John RossmanApril 9, 20208 min

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. ~ George Bernard Shaw

How do Amazon’s leaders decide what to do and what not to do? How do they develop ideas and rationalize them? Much the same way they hire the best people. They use the narrative process to answer these questions and to capture and explain their ideas.

The Killer Feature: Clarity

Michael Porter, Harvard professor of strategy, has stated that “strategy is about making choices, trade-offs; it’s about deliberately choosing to be different.” By developing clarity and simplicity in what you are doing and not doing, you are improving the ideas, making deliberate decisions, and gaining shared understanding in the organization. The fundamental mistake leaders make in developing digital strategies is not seeking clarity, especially regarding the customer experience. What will delight the customer? What operational model supports this experience? What data and technology support the operational model? How will we measure?

Achieving clarity can be uncomfortable. It can disrupt. People tend to want to avoid conflict, be collaborative, and basically accept all the ideas and all the wording. This tactic does not demand the best thinking and avoids the sensitive topics in the spirit of “getting along.” A well-written narrative, on the other hand, demands rigor on exactly the right wording, compels getting to the heart of risks and sensitive topics that have to be addressed to achieve the goal, and requires straight and simple language to ensure that everyone understands the key points. A well-written narrative and the process of writing it will force teams to get beyond being polite and get to insights.

An Amazon leadership principle is to “Invent and Simplify.” Driving toward clarity of thought through a written narrative is a key operational approach to get both invention and simplification. “Almost every meeting which involves making a business decision is driven by a document,” says Llew Mason, an Amazon vice president. “One of the great things about a written document is that it drives a lot of clarity in the process.” Ah, clarity in thinking. Clarity on what you decide to do. Clarity on how the idea will affect users and the business. A longtime business partner of mine who worked with me both before and after Amazon has told me many times that what he sees me doing with my clients, which he has seen to be tremendously helpful, is that I’m always trying to simplify and clarify the communication. I learned this at Amazon.

What Is A Narrative?

At Amazon, leaders write narratives for all plans, proposals, services, and investments. PowerPoint is not used (insert applause). Much has been written about how PowerPoint dumbs down an organization or puts it at risk. In his 2017 letter to shareholders, Jeff Bezos wrote, “We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon. We write narratively structured six-page memos,” Bezos continues. “We silently read one at the beginning of each meeting in a kind of ‘study hall.’ Not surprisingly, the quality of these memos varies widely. Some have the clarity of angels singing. They are brilliant and thoughtful and set up the meeting for high-quality discussion. Sometimes they come in at the other end of the spectrum.”

Narratives at Amazon are two-or six-page documents written in complete sentences. A narrative must be expressly tailored to the situation based on the topic, the timing in the initiative, and the audience. It must flow in a way that makes sense relative to the topic and audience. It is verboten to dump excessive bullet points or slides into the narrative. Data, charts, and diagrams can be included, but they must be explained in the narrative. Appendix material is also allowed. I believe that the discipline of writing out ideas is at the heart of Amazon’s innovation process and can be replicated to the same effect. As explained by Greg Satell:

At the heart of how Amazon innovates is its six-page memo, which kicks off everything the company does. Executives must write a press release, complete with hypothetical customer reactions to the product launch. That is followed by a series of FAQs, anticipating questions customers, as well as internal stakeholders, might have.

Executives at the company have stressed to me how the process forces you to think things through. You can’t gloss over problems or hide behind complexity. You actually have to work things out. All of this happens before the first meeting. It’s a level of rigor that few other organizations even attempt, much less are able to achieve.

The Process Of A Narrative

Why do programs and projects take too long, go over budget, become bloated, and fail to deliver according to expectations? Execution and project management technique can be reasons, but the biggest root cause is failing to accurately define the end state at the beginning. Teams want to launch quickly and start designing, building, and testing. Taking the time to write a narrative will dramatically improve the definition of what needs to be done, plus make it as small and concise as possible, so it can be done faster, cheaper, and with more agility. But writing narratives takes time, so they are done when they are done. It is difficult to predict how long it will take and how much effort will be required. It is completely reasonable to create a deadline. “You have one week to write a narrative” might be appropriate.

Narratives can be written by one person, but it is often a group effort because multiple people and teams contribute to the idea. Forcing people to own the narrative jointly has huge benefits in both getting the best ideas on paper and building shared understandings and relationships through authorship. Part of Amazon’s practice on narratives is not to include the author’s name or names on the narratives. This sends the signal that the narrative is a community activity.

When the narrative is done, think through the review meetings and decision-making process. Who needs to deeply understand and agree with the narrative before a decision is made? Who are the key decision makers? At Amazon, review meetings tend to be 60 minutes long. They start with 10 to 15 minutes of silence to deeply read or “grok” the proposal and vision. This is followed by a discussion debating the merits, options, appropriate next steps, and decisions.

The process of authoring, reviewing, and deciding must be carefully considered. It must be rigorous. It must take time and effort. It is done when it’s done. What do narrative writers do wrong? They don’t spend enough time on their writing. As Bezos wrote: “They mistakenly believe a high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more! . . . The 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. . . . The key point here is that you can improve results through the simple act of teaching scope—that a great memo probably should take a week or more.”

The Structure Of A Narrative

A narrative must be constructed of complete thoughts, complete paragraphs, complete sentences. You may include charts, numbers, and diagrams, but those items must be explained in the narrative. Other than that, there are no rules on structure, and the structure the authors choose will depend on the topic, the timing in the discussion cycle, and the audience.

The first sections of the narrative are typically customer focused. “Who are the customers? What benefits are we bringing them? What problems are we solving for them? Why would this idea delight them?” Sections after that might include what the customer experience would be, dependencies or requirements, metrics to measure success, business case, and key risks.

A Sample Narrative

By now you hopefully understand the importance of writing ideas out completely and clearly. For your projects, investments, strategies, and executive topics, ditch the PowerPoint presentations, and force teams to put their ideas and plans in writing. Meetings start with 10 to 15 minutes of silence to read the narrative. Phones and computers are left outside. Then debate the merits of the narrative. Don’t be afraid either to ask that the narrative be improved or to write a follow-up related narrative.

Make no mistake. Creating narratives takes skill, experience, commitment, and patience. You can’t rush great narratives because you can’t rush great thinking and communications. It takes practice. Writing is less an artistic exercise and more a practiced skill. It’s less of a spontaneous combustion and more of a methodical construction—like building and rebuilding the perfect birdhouse. Do you have the discipline and commitment to write in plain English your most important ideas and proposals?

Other executives and big companies are recognizing how writing as a forcing function to create clarity is key to innovation. JPMorgan Chase, whom I have had a chance to talk to about many of these ideas, is using narratives as one of the ways to try to be literary, more like Amazon. “Mr. Bezos notoriously banned slide presentations to keep Amazon in startup mode as it grew, instead asking employees to craft six-page documents complete with a press release and FAQs. Over roughly the past 18 months, JPMorgan has started a similar practice in its consumer businesses under Gordon Smith, the bank’s co-president and co-chief operating officer.” Are you able and willing to commit to hard habits like writing narratives to change culture, speed, tempo, and innovation?

Writing ideas and proposals in complete narratives results in better ideas, more clarity on the ideas, and better conversation on the ideas. You will make better decisions about what to do and how to do it. The initiatives will be smaller and less risky. Writing narratives is hard, takes a long time, and is an acquired skill for the organization. High standards and an appreciation for building this capability over time are required.

Questions To Consider

1. Do your ideas and plans suffer from incomplete thought?
2. Do your projects get bloated with size and unnecessary complexity?
3. Do your executives understand and influence the details of a proposal sufficiently to make a well-informed decision?

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: John Rossman. Excerpted from his book, Think Like Amazon, 50 1/2 Ideas To Become A Digital Leader (McGraw-Hill)

At The Blake Project we are helping clients from around the world, in all stages of development, redefine and articulate what makes them competitive at critical moments of change through online strategy workshops. Please email us for more.

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