I’ve been avoiding writing good memos. I know, fo’shame.
Writing a good memo that’s brief, direct and informative takes time. I’ve just been too lazy to make that time.
Maybe you too?
Well, in any case, both of us need to stop. And here’s why.
Conscious consideration isn’t always the answer.
But that’s not what your mother told you.
Raised in a world that celebrates intentional genius, we’re often lead to believe that the only way to solve the thorniest problems is by living and breathing them.
And that’s certainly one way to solve problems that involve large amounts of information and vague constraints, but it may not be the best way.
Dutch psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis recommends that we slack off instead.
The Unconscious Mind Theory suggests that decisions that involve large amounts of information and vague or conflicting constraints are better left to our unconscious minds to untangle, and trying to work through them actively will lead to a worse outcome.
That’s because the unconscious areas of our brain have more bandwidth to try out more potential solutions than the more conscious centres of our brain.
Providing your brain time to rest can help you solve more complex problems.
We can continue to unload a ton of information on our teams and then ask them to brainstorm a solution on the spot.
Or we can give them space to think of better solutions.
This is where memos come in.
Bezos structures his legendary memos as a narrative; there’s a conflict to resolve and a story that reaches a happy ending.
Here’s the version I’m going with.
- Start with a concise introduction,
- clearly state the goal and metrics for measuring progress,
- provide relevant facts and information on how things are, what’s been done before, and to what effect,
- and most importantly, explain what success looks like.
Ideally, we should send this memo two days beforehand. But more than that, we should also communicate our expectations clearly.
- Please read the memo at least 24 hours before the meeting. Preferably sleep on it instead of reading it on the day or an hour before the meeting.
- Please write down your questions or comments related to the content. We will discuss them at the start of the meeting.
- This meeting aims to discuss what we need to do and how it should be done.
- I value your input and look forward to hearing your perspective.
And, of course, follow these steps yourself.
A great meeting starts with a well-written memo.
As people far more experienced than me in writing memos recommend, always send your memos for review to at least 2 other people.
Here’s my favourite quote from Bezos’s legendary email banning the use of PowerPoints:
The reason why writing a good 4-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 important than what, and how things are related.Jeff Bezos
I believe a well-written memo might just be the nourishment we need for untangling large amounts of information and conflicting constraints that are really better left to our unconscious minds to untangle.
And without that nourishment, we’re missing out on thinking our best thoughts.
It’s worked pretty well for Intel and Amazon.
Why wouldn’t it work for us?