How Managers Can 10X Their Productivity with Writing

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By Walker Donohue

Managing a team well requires expert communication.

Holding meetings and using project management software systems do not equate to effective management. Effective management means aligning your team through goals, inspiring them to do good work, and seamlessly transferring knowledge from person to person and team to team.

When it comes to communication, missing by an inch can result in missing by a mile. As messages get passed from person to person, they get diluted, so if your communication isn’t constant or consistent as it moves around your team, you can end up sending people off in the wrong direction.

That’s why, as a manager, if you want to increase your productivity, you should focus on improving your writing. Writing provides an unchanging source of information that employees can reference anytime.

When your writing is clear and comprehensive, you make ideas stick, create accountability, and force critical thinking.

Make Your Ideas Stick

Good leaders can communicate complex ideas in simple, straightforward, and memorable ways. When you effectively condense a large amount of information into a few short words or sentences, it helps you get the point across faster and cuts down on the amount of back and forth with team members. Instead of spending your time explaining your thoughts and ideas, you can instead focus more energy on implementing them.

Perhaps nobody understands this better than Jeff Bezos. Bezos knows that carefully picking the right words and phrases to communicate a company goal or vision can make or break your team’s alignment with it.

“What Jeff understood was the power of rhetoric. Time spent coming up with the right words to package a key concept in a memorable way was time well spent. People fret about what others say about them when they’re not in the room, but Jeff was solving the issue of getting people to say what he’d say when he wasn’t in the room.” Eugene Wei, Compress to impress via Remains of the Day

Getting a group of people (thousands of people in the case of Amazon) to understand a goal, and then remember it enough to keep their activities aligned with it even months down the road is a really tough task. As a manager, it’s important to word your messages in a way that sticks in your team’s collective memory.

At Amazon, for example, employees think about and frame their work from a single phrase—’it is always Day 1.’ This phrase condenses an entire philosophy about innovation and mindset into two words- Day 1. In doing so, Bezos ensures that even with the overload of messages his employees receive every day, it’s always easy to tie their actions back to the company mission.

In his 2016 letter to shareholders, Bezos elaborates on his idea about Day 1, which he mentioned as far back as his 1997 letter by contrasting it to Day 2. He then goes on to introduce strategies for fending off Day 2, which are also encapsulated in short, two-word phrases like ‘Resist Proxies.’

Catchy and concise phrases like this decrease the cognitive overhead needed to understand each concept. It’s a lot easier to remember ‘resist proxies’ than it is to remember ‘be aware of when your processes become ineffective or become the thing you strive for.’

Coming up with the most effective wording as Bezos does in this example will not be easy. It will take a lot of time and a lot of trial and error before you can find the right way to articulate your goals and ideas. Dedicating the time to doing so before rolling out your initiatives, however, will end up saving you time in the long run, as you’ll spend less time repeating yourself and less time clarifying your thoughts and coaching employees on what they should focus on.

Create Accountability

As a manager, you are responsible not only for meeting your own deadlines and goals but also for making sure your team hits their deadlines and goals. The more time you need to spend recapping a previous conversation or resetting expectations due to a misunderstanding, the less productive you and your team can be. One way to cut down on the amount of time you need to spend on these types of conversations is to obsessively document as much information as possible.

Documenting everything in writing provides a safety net of sorts for information that slips between the cracks or is forgotten about in verbal communication. It is easy to forget details of a conversation or even topics discussed over the course of a 30-minute 1:1 or a longer training session, so relying solely on verbal communication can easily create knowledge gaps in your team.

With a comprehensive record of what happened, what was discussed, and agreed upon next steps, you can increase your productivity by making it easier to:

  • Set expectations: Oftentimes people come out of a verbal conversation with different ideas of objectives. Getting everyone on the same page can be as simple as writing down the objectives so that there is no ambiguity.
  • Make action items: A successful meeting is one in which everyone leaves knowing exactly what steps need to be taken to progress forward. If you don’t write these steps down, people can easily forget or mix them up.
  • Assign tasks: For a team to work cohesively, it is important that everyone understands their role in a project and which action items they are responsible for. The easiest way to avoid confusion and to make sure everyone follows through is to write down who is doing what.

Think about the last meeting you had with your employees—did you document objectives and action items and assign tasks? If you didn’t, you might find yourself following up with everyone from that meeting confirming these details and maybe even re-explaining some parts.

That’s why it’s important to keep meeting notes like this:

Having the topics and action items written down means that the attendees—in this case, Benjamin, Alison, and Rhett—won’t have any reason not to follow through with their responsibilities. If they forget a piece of the discussion, forget what their task was, or forget when it was due, they can quickly refer to the notes rather than needing additional time with you, the manager, to clarify and explain.

Spending five minutes to write up these notes saves the manager potentially three five-minute conversations that might be needed later on to recap details with each of the three attendees. Most importantly, having this record makes it easier to hold teammates accountable and ensure that projects progress on time and in the right direction.

Force Critical Thinking

Perhaps the most important component of getting your team to fully understand a mission or goal is fully understanding it yourself and knowing exactly how it fits into the business and why it works. If you present an idea to your team that is unorganized or has logical inconsistencies, they’re most likely not going to get on board with it. One way to test your idea’s logic and figure out the best way to organize it is to write it down in full sentences.

Again, one of the biggest proponents of this technique is Jeff Bezos, who insists that ideas are pitched to him in narrative format rather than in bullet points or PowerPoint:


Bezos understood that when you have to put ideas into full sentences and then string those sentences together in a logical way, it forces the writer to think more in-depth and uncover any flaws in logic.

Think about how a PowerPoint is structured—text is limited to bullet points, and each slide contains a different idea without a clear narrative on how it connects to the previous slide. The presenter therefore doesn’t need to think through how the bullet points really connect to each other or how the ideas on each slide relate to one another. Furthermore, if you missed the presentation or forgot a part of it and wanted to refer back to the slides, it would be hard to piece together the speaker’s argument or logic without the accompanying vocal presentation.

In contrast, a written narrative memo requires the writer to connect all their ideas together, eliminating the possibility of logic gaps and also giving any reader an easily digestible format to refresh their memory on the ideas and arguments.

One useful way to structure your arguments is to use the Pyramid Principle, which uses the following format for written presentations or arguments:

  1. Start with your answer first.
  2. Group and summarize your supporting arguments.
  3. Logically order your supporting ideas.

Using a consistent outline like this to put your ideas into will ensure that your ideas are structured in a way that your team can easily process and understand. In keeping with the common theme of using writing as a management strategy, this might cost you time up front but will ultimately save you time in the long run, as you’ll spend less time working with your team to bring them up to speed and re-explaining things.

Use Writing as a Productivity Tool

Ambiguity is a manager’s worst enemy. If your employees don’t understand a project’s objective, don’t understand what they should be doing or who is doing what, productivity will be limited. Good managers know that the best way to combat ambiguity and get everyone working as a cohesive team is by writing everything down.

When you put your ideas in writing, you have a tool to hold team members accountable as well as a single and comprehensive record of objectives and plans.

With accountability in place and everyone on the same page about objectives, the amount of hands-on management you’ll need to do will decrease. Your team can be productive without you, and you can dedicate more time to strategy and thinking about the next big thing.

This post was originally published at the Slab blog. It has been republished here with permission.

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