Tom Critchlow

Filtered for... writing inside organizations

May 27, 2020

Language is the operating system of organizations. It’s the working memory, the interface between teams and the process for storing and embedding long term memories.

I’m convinced that writing is a key skill for leaders inside organizations - to be able to clearly and compellingly outline a vision and to direct attention on a regular basis.

With that - a few various links around writing (and knowledge) inside organizations:

First - ponder.to looks like a great group writing app. Useful for all kinds of things but the interface looks slick:

Secondly - what was SameTab is now Pulse. I love the rogue nature of taking over the newtab space for your employees. Where else are there gaps in the lives of knowledge workers?

(Aside: don’t snooze on Leo or Pulse. I really loved this piece of writing on Context over control: the future of remote work)

What I love about Pulse is the idea of in-context knowledge. Something friend Noah Brier is doubling down on with his startup Variance:

Knowledge, as they say, is power. But knowledge without context is often meaningless. Last year I was introduced to the idea of the “skills transfer gap” in a Harvard Business Review article about executive education. The gap is the one between where a skill is learned and where it is practiced, and can be the deciding factor on whether someone actually internalizes something. From the article:

One of the biggest complaints we hear about executive education is that the skills and capabilities developed don’t get applied on the job. This challenges the very foundation of executive education, but it is not surprising. Research by cognitive, educational, and applied psychologists dating back a century, along with more-recent work in the neuroscience of learning, reveals that the distance between where a skill is learned (the locus of acquisition) and where it is applied (the locus of application) greatly influences the probability that a student will put that skill into practice.

While they’re talking about executive education, it could just as easily be applied to the problems we face in documenting everyday practices and processes. The further the learning space is from the doing space, the harder it is to internalize and put into practice. Ultimately organizing your documentation is about finding ways to shrink this gap and make it easier to discover and use the knowledge stored in your documentation when you need it most.

Of course - the ur-god of company writing and blogging is Amazon and their famous 6-page memos:

Six-Page Narratives

We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon. Instead, we write narratively structured six-page memos. 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.

In the handstand example, it’s pretty straightforward to recognize high standards. It wouldn’t be difficult to lay out in detail the requirements of a well-executed handstand, and then you’re either doing it or you’re not. The writing example is very different. The difference between a great memo and an average one is much squishier. It would be extremely hard to write down the detailed requirements that make up a great memo. Nevertheless, I find that much of the time, readers react to great memos very similarly. They know it when they see it. The standard is there, and it is real, even if it’s not easily describable.

Here’s what we’ve figured out. Often, when a memo isn’t great, it’s not the writer’s inability to recognize the high standard, but instead a wrong expectation on scope: 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! They’re trying to perfect a handstand in just two weeks, and we’re not coaching them right. 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. They simply can’t be done in a day or two. 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.

(Related: Steve Yegge’s Platform Rant)

A more modern take on the same concept is Automattic - which uses a shared blog theme (P2) to run their company:

Ben: One thing that that really stood out to me about being at Automattic was that internal blogging system. And I think the point here is not necessarily the technology per se, obviously it was built on WordPress, but rather this idea that teams would every day summarize what they were working on and the problems they encountered, the discussions they had and this idea that it became a cultural norm at Automattic where every day you start work by reading the P2’s and seeing what was going on, and I actually felt that despite the fact I was in Taiwan in a different time zone than a lot of people at Automattic, I felt like I knew more about what was happening at Automattic than I did when I was going into an office every day at other jobs.

MM: Yeah, that internal blogging system, I think every company needs an equivalent of it, regardless of what’s powering it. It provides transparency versus an email chain where everything’s private, it’s locked up in someone’s box. If someone leaves, it’s all gone. For example, every post you made or comment you made on an internal system or that people made to you is all still available in the search index. And we have a kind of an internal version of Google alerts, so when you’re mentioned or a topic you follow, you can find it, but you can control what you follow, just like a Google Reader where you can say these are things I want to follow, but then all this other stuff, don’t push it in my inbox and mix it up with external communication, all these other things. I would love to productize this, I wish it was already ready to go, but in the meantime it’s all open source so companies can run their own P2 instance wherever they want.

Finally - I’ll leave some writing Brian and I did last year for Little Futures:

Organizations are built on language, and language begins with noticing and naming. If you want to change an organization, change its language.

At Little Futures, we use the phrase “noticing and naming” a lot. But noticing and naming are in constant tension - noticing is unbundling and naming is bundling.

Every business is a search for an untapped advantage and a plan to execute on it. Those advantages come from noticing, and those plans come from naming.


This blog is written by Tom Critchlow, an independent strategy consultant living and working in Brooklyn, NY. If you like what you read please leave a comment below in disqus or sign up for my Tinyletter.
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