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Talking vs writing cultures


There are multiple ways to describe a culture. Today let's think about taking vs writing cultures, or we also could call it meetings vs memos culture. 

Who likes meetings? When I ask this question - few people raise their hands. And then comes yet another meeting invite. 

Let's skip the part about how bad most meetings are. Our culture is full of both evidence and memes about this. 

Let's also not talk about meeting types. Only geeky project managers know about those and even they don't use this knowledge to avoid being labelled geeky. 

Let's instead talk about the alternative to meetings - reading. There are, or so the legend goes, places where people don't have calendars full of meetings - instead they have inboxes full of memos. 

Probably the most well-known case of a writing culture is Amazon. Years ago Amazon leaders banned the use of PowerPoint in meetings and instead switched to 6-pages writing narratives. According to the latest book about Amazon this change recognisably contributed to their enormous growth and innovation efforts. 

Another example of the writing culture at Amazon is what they call the "working backwards" process. To present a new project, a PM at Amazon will need to start by writing a press release for it. Before any user stories, before a single mockup or a line of code, they write up the desired outcomes from the customer's perspective. This simple but powerful technique allows Amazon to stay customer-centric in their work and keep delighting their clients. 

Surely a writing culture is not the sole factor in Amazon's success. Moreover, it took them a lot of time and effort to establish, promote and refine the writing culture. Why is it so costly? And why in absence of support people tend to get back to default - talking? 

Why is talking the default? 

Some say it's faster, some say it's more effective. I say it's because we're lazy. Writing is work and writing well is hard work. To express one's thoughts on paper clearly, convincingly and succinctly takes time, experience and tons of preparation. 

I am not saying speaking is much easier. Delivering a good presentation or a compelling debate is equally, if not harder. However, it's not how we usually talk, is it? Usually, we are winging it. We come unprepared, we don't really listen and we leave without a second thought whether we reached an understanding. 

Later we can say 
  • What I meant was
  • I didn't say that
  • You misunderstood  
  • Oh, I forgot, sorry 
  • Let's start all over again 
Also, talking feels like work. Especially if it's a meeting. Compare the two statements: 
I worked on this one-pager for four hours. 
We've been in this meeting for four hours
The first one sounds like slacking while the second one deserves a free lunch. 

Most certainly neither talking nor writing should be evaluated in a vacuum. Both could be extremely effective or super wasteful. Moreover, your preference towards one or another might depend on your personality. Myers-Brigg (MBTI) test could be used to identify individual preferences for communication. Some people prefer to get information by listening, others by reading. Knowing each other preferences - we can work better together. 

It worth noting that writing culture doesn't mean we can't talk to each other (or have meetings) and talking culture does not mean we don't share any memos. Both cultures could be utilised for the best outcomes. You can even let teams decide what culture works best for them or, if you're fancy, take communication preferences into account when forming teams. 

Times, they're changing 

In our post-pandemic times of remote work, writing culture is on the rise. Currently, it's much harder to synchronise with your colleagues, find time, focus and equal connection quality to do a productive remote meeting. Writing solves some of those problems. It's asynchronous, non-ambiguous, collaborative and trackable. Moreover, writing has so many hidden benefits such as clarity of thought, inclusivity, logical consistency, longevity and so on. 

I am not saying stop having all the meetings, instead, I encourage you to embrace writing more. You can start small, from the good old "should this be a meeting or a memo would suffice?" question. Then you might start asking yourself how your colleagues wish to receive information, by listening or by reading. Eventually, you might start substituting your meetings with collaborative documents. Finally, when you meet - it will matter, and when you write - it will drive results. 

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