Amazon Meeting Memo

Amazon is known for starting meetings (since 2004) with silent reading ("Study Hall") of a 4-6pg memo, instead of using PowerPoint.

  • all group meetings, or just "S-Team" (senior execs) meetings?
    • widely used. The docs are limited to 2 pages for a shorter discussion, and to 6 pages for longer reviews.
    • but not universal? This isn't for the every-day meeting. This is for the multi-million-dollar business deal. Anything you would typically reserve for an hour-long power-point presentation.

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.

  • Hmm, my experience is the opposite: I typically find that every sentence is a bundle of assumptions, and a paragraph just runs them all together in a way that prevents examination. I'd rather see an Outline of bullet points that are mostly 1-sentence chunks. Or at least 1-idea paragraphs.

I'd really love to find an actual example of one of these.

What might Amazon’s 6 page narrative structure look like?

if you want to move to a Jeff Bezos–style executive meeting without PowerPoint and driven by a six-page narrative memo, you should be aware that most reports are glossing over the one element that could determine the success of the initiative: the narrative.

Let’s delve into how to craft an effective narrative memo. First, though, let’s look at why Bezos has taken this approach

The commentaries I’ve found on the web about the six-page memo mostly focus on the meeting process, such as reading the memo and the incisive questions asked by Bezos and his executives (I would hope they’d ask tough questions). Or they talk about the many hours it takes to create the memo, and how authorship is omitted from it, and the importance of having solid data in the appendices that back up the claims in the core six pages. Yet almost no-one has said anything about the narrative structure Bezos wants in his memos.

Why the narrative is important

Prediction becomes much harder in large, complex systems like a company, especially one the size of Amazon. But Bezos’ executives still need to make decisions about the future, and so they marshal their own and their colleagues’ experiences and combine those with what’s provided in the six-page memo. With any luck, the memo draws out the causes and effects of what’s going on, the forces at play, and what other players might do – all so the decision-makers can predict what happens next and choose a course of action.

It turns out that these causal connections are best illustrated as a narrative

Without the narrative, you just get a series of disconnected facts and opinions. Collectively, it won’t make sense.

Here is an example of a simple narrative structure that will really help in the development and understanding of a memo, assisting decision-makers to work out what might come next: In the past it was like this … Then something happened … So now we should do this … So the future might be like this …

  • the context or question
  • approaches to answer the question – by whom, by which method, and their conclusions
  • how is your attempt at answering the question different or the same from previous approaches
  • now what? – that is, what’s in it for the customer, the company, and how does the answer to the question enable innovation on behalf of the customer?
  • The appendixes carry the data, the validation, the information that feeds into the narrative that doesn't carry the structure, but is needed for completeness and cross reference.

  • The Press Release is a separate document that can be attached as an Appendix. It looks like a real, honest to God press release that you would see complete with quotes and all. (PR/FAQ)
  • You can have appendices, but don't expect them to be read. Managers at Amazon like lots of detail so it is good to have all the detail in those Appendices just in case the question gets asked. Shows you did your homework as well.
  • Make sure the doc is well done. In my department it wasn't unusual for a doc to go through many, many revisions depending on who it was going to be presented to.
  • It is usually good to frame your thinking/decisions around company core values (customer obsession, frugality, etc.).

see also

Alternative: A silent meeting is worth a thousand words: modified version of this practice from Amazon. In a nutshell: the group in the meeting reviews a Google Doc in silence, asking and answering questions via Google Docs comments. After 30 minutes of this, we’ve identified key points that need to be discussed in person, and can then have a short, focused conversation.

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