Joel T. Sanders
Sorry, Jeff Bezos: We Can't Eliminate Bullet Points in Our Company
Updated: Aug 11, 2020
I recently wrote a post on Jeff Bezos' longtime insistence that Amazon employees prepare narrative memos to guide internal meetings. Bezos banned PowerPoint at Amazon nearly two decades ago in a famous email that continues to draw headlines.
Equally intriguing, but less discussed, is Bezos' requirement to eliminate bullet points in those memos, lest they become "disguised PowerPoint" presentations.
This idea poses a direct challenge to the Operations Documents I use to run weekly Executive Meetings with my clients. The documents we use make heavy use of bullet point lists, which display at a very high level the totality of strategic initiatives across the organization. They allow an executive team to see, at a glance, the work that's getting done, who is accountable, and whether or not a given initiative is on-track or off-track.
The same document also lists topics for conversation, in relative order of priority. This "conversation queue" gives our teams enough structure to identify pertinent topics for long-term planning, and enough flexibility to evolve on the fly as circumstances change.
Fewer Lists, More Narrative
Perhaps Bezos's "no lists" requirement is more myth than reality. But the concept of "fewer lists, more narrative" is still intriguing to me. In that vein, I've started experimenting with narrative preparation for a number of the operations meetings I lead, experimenting on myself, first.
I first tried writing a detailed "retrospective" of my prior week, and a "prospective" for the coming week directly in my teams' Operations Documents. This is an exercise I typically do in my handwritten journal anyway, so it was just a matter of writing the same concepts openly in our shared document, and asking everyone to read my essay prior to diving into conversation topics.
Unfortunately, it became immediately obvious that such a requirement wouldn't work. My update alone was 5 paragraphs long, and frankly, it felt like a waste of time when I read it during the meeting. My colleagues politely declined to comment on my lengthy—and boring—written discourse, and we held our meeting as usual.
Still, it felt like I was onto something. Requiring the team to read my update may have been counterproductive, but it was extremely valuable to me preparing it.
Moreover, seeing my narrative discourse in the same place as my project lists gave me a greater depth of understanding and sense of control. It seemed to bring disparate, disconnected projects into a more cohesive whole.
When I later blocked time on my calendar into a plan for the workweek, my prior writing helped me be more creative about the constraints I was facing. For example, I eliminated one meeting and combined conversation topics on another, freeing up significant blocks of time for more focused work. Without the prior writing exercise, I probably would have missed those opportunities.
Writing a narrative plan seems to bring me a sense of calm control, which isn't a surprise. Research shows that this form of reflective practice is one of the most productive tools at our disposal for learning and one of the best ways to generate creative breakthroughs. Getting an entire executive team engaged in this kind of practice as a part of their regular weekly meeting preparation could have a massive payoff. But I needed to continue tinkering with the mechanics before rolling it out to my various teams.
The following week, I wrote my usual, detailed retrospective in my journal, but then summarized it in two short paragraphs. One paragraph described my takeaways and learnings from the prior week, and the other looked forward to the upcoming week. I then placed the summary directly above my lists of projects and deliverables in my teams' operations documents.
The result was powerful. My short summaries seemed to capture just the right amount of detail, bringing a sense of clarity and control to my week. My teammates were able to read my update in less than a minute, grasping a clearer picture of my workweek than if they simply read down my lengthy list of projects written out as bullet points.
In the coming weeks, I'll be asking the members of my various teams to try the same exercise as a part of their weekly meeting preparation. As we continue to learn, I'll report back on how it goes.
For Specific Proposals, Narrative is King
For specific proposals and strategic initiatives, or when we know that one of our meeting conversations will go deep into the weeds, detailed memos prepared in advance make a ton of sense.
For example, for one of our clients, we are proposing a significant reorganization to their website's navigation menu, submenus, and pages. With several million visitors per year, this isn't something to be taken lightly. The client has understandably been cautious about proceeding, already sitting through multiple meetings and slides presentations full of bullet points.
I've since asked the project lead to prepare a narrative memo summarizing the research and logic behind the suggestions. This intuitively makes sense: the exercise should bring clarity not only to him, but to our team and our client. Ultimately, it should lead to better execution of the strategy, and a better experience for website visitors. If we get it right, we should see measurable results in metrics such as time on site, exit percentage, total pages per session, and bounce rate.
I'm honestly new at narrative planning, so I don't have a lot of experience to share at this time. With a hat tip to Jeff Bezos, I see no possible way—or desirability, for that matter—to eliminate bullet point lists as a management tool, especially for high-level overviews of business operations.
But I'm open to being wrong. As we continue to tinker and experiment, I'll share my findings here.