Amazon Memo: What Lessons Does It Hold?

The Amazon memo is often mentioned as one of the management team’s keys to the company’s operational success. Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos credits their embrace of the six-page memo as one of the company’s most important managerial tactics. This might make it seem like there’s some elaborate act of genius behind these memos. However, the memos themselves are actually fairly straightforward documents. What sets Amazon apart is its strong commitment to the memo at the highest levels of company operations. In this article, we’ll take a look at what exactly the Jeff Bezos memo is, how it’s constructed, and what role it plays in running a successful company.

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Amazon 6 Page Memo: What Is It?

If you’ve been in a corporate environment at any point in the last twenty years, you know that virtually all meetings have one thing in common: PowerPoint presentations. Somewhere along the way, PowerPoint became the de facto go-to technology for executives to communicate information and vision. This used to be the case at Amazon as well. However, on June 9, 2004, Bezos sent a company-wide email banning the use of PowerPoint in executive meetings. Instead, executives would write six-page memos whenever they were expected to present on an important managerial decision (for example, when launching new products or services or reviewing strategy or performance on existing ones, engaging in M&A evaluation, dealing with operational issues, etc.).

Abandoning the PowerPoint for the old-fashioned memo might seem technologically backwards. Yet, there is clear rationale behind Amazon’s embrace of the memo. The company believes the memo brings clear benefits to both the writer of the memo and the audience. The Amazon memo is an example of how there are a multitude of opportunities on how to innovate!

The Benefit

Often, an executive’s job is to share information and try to build alignment around a key decision. PowerPoint can allow them to gloss over logical inconsistencies or areas that haven’t been fully thought out. Further, PowerPoint documents can be assembled quickly, and often by junior colleagues. This at times can present opportunity for just a sketchy arrangement of topics that executives can then riff on as they present them.

Writing an Amazon 6-page memo forces an executive to think differently. For one thing, it forces them to focus on the work and to think deeply about the situation and the “narrative” that needs to be told. High-level Amazon executives are busy, which means they’re not immune to being lazy when it comes to preparing presentations. Part of the thinking behind the memo is that just giving a presentation can allow executives to skate by with a hazy vision of their ideas. That lack of specificity can and most likely will lead to an unsuccessful execution.

Also, logical inconsistencies or haphazard ideas are much more obvious when put into writing than they are in a PowerPoint presentation. So the actual writing of the memo forces management to think deeper and harder about their ideas. In other words, the writing process itself functions as a tool to optimize managerial performance.

Amazon Memo Format

The guiding principle of the Jeff Bezos 6 page memo is the narrative (in addition to the fact that they should be, of course, six pages). The narrative is the factor that often remains unclear in a PowerPoint presentation – one of the reasons our Pyramid Principle training is our most popular corporate offering. Meetings among executives are designed to help synchronize efforts across a broad and complex network of company operations. Executives have to make decisions involving lots of complicated factors. Making these decisions is easier when the information is presented as part of a coherent narrative. The narrative component is also designed to help the memo remain oriented to not just the product but also its value to customers. The memos answer in detail the questions of who/what/when/where/why as they relate to the product or service under discussion.

A Way Of Thinking

While there is not necessarily a rigid structure to the Amazon memo aside from its length, the fact that executives have to formally shape their thinking into a written narrative essentially forces them to follow the Pyramid Principle. You may have encountered the Pyramid Principle in your business education or heard it mentioned at work. If you haven’t, it tends to resemble the structure most students are taught to follow in academic essays. Essentially, the top of the pyramid, and the beginning of an effective memo, should plainly state the solution or argument being communicated. Then the memo will descend into the main supporting arguments. These will then each descend further into a logical presentation of the evidence and claims that support those arguments.

Many people who are not natural writers might find the idea of writing a six-page memo daunting. But most everybody has an instinctive sense of how to logically sequence a narrative. The Jeff Bezos memo taps into these innate capabilities. Also worth noting is that the Amazon memo is often accompanied by a private, internal press release related to the product or service. This helps Amazon remain oriented to the customer’s perspective.

One final part of the Amazon memo format to realize is the way it is used to structure meetings. With PowerPoint presentations, people in the audience often interrupt to offer opinions or ask questions. Oftentimes, those questions would be addressed later in the presentation. Amazon’s meetings, by contrast, are “silent meetings.” The first 30 minutes are spent in silence, with executives all reading the memo and taking notes. This helps create a more efficient meeting and helps keep executives focused on the matter at hand. Otherwise, people can get distracted or pay attention to hypotheticals they’ve invented.

Amazon Memo Example

Amazon can be a notoriously secretive company when it comes to its behind-the-scenes operations. This means that there are few – if any – verifiable Amazon memo examples out there for public consumption. However, as Bezos himself has said, the writing of the memo is more important than the reading of the memo. So if you want to see what one looks like, try writing one yourself! Or if you want to see how others have grappled with this same task, check out the Amazon-style memo experiment over at Geekwire.

The Amazon memo is an example of how companies can sometimes rely too much on managerial “innovations”. These innovations can become the standard way of doing business, but which have unseen downsides. What Jeff Bezos found was that these tools were limiting high quality, deep thinking that leads to better decisions and ideas. For those interested in delving deeper into the notion of pulling back from technology to be more insightful, creative, and even efficient, Cal Newport’s blog and books on Deep Work are particularly relevant. Using memos instead of PowerPoint would be an example of engaging in Deep Work.

Wrap Up

Back in 2004, Jeff Bezos was transitioning his company from an online marketplace to something much more innovative and aspirational. He wanted to develop new products from a customer-obsessed point of view and expand across an array of new services. The simple Amazon memo helped enable Amazon to evolve its business model without any special equipment or technology. Instead, it helped Amazon leadership think more clearly and be more focused on customer value. Obviously, they’ve done something right as Amazon’s value is hovering around 1 trillion dollars! Take what you can from this management technique and implement it into your own management!

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