As a leader, one of my most important responsibilities is making sure that teams are empowered to do great work. A lot goes into making this happen, but if I were to distill it down to its absolute essence, it’d be:
- Hire curious and ambitious people
- Give them the information they need to make good decisions
While I have lots of thoughts (and potential future Insights articles!) about the first point, I’d like to focus on the second: getting your teams the information they need to make good decisions.
When it comes to sharing information, I’m a big proponent of the written word. In my view, conversations are ephemeral. Human beings can only absorb so much information at a time, and without proper context, content might go in one ear of your listeners and out the other. If you’ve ever found yourself having the same conversation over and over again, you know that live conversations don’t scale across large teams. I’m not saying conversations aren’t critical — they are. It’s just that with a written artifact as a starting point to set context, the conversation will be significantly more productive.
The practice of writing builds shared understanding (ex: “What are we even talking about?), drives alignment (ex: “How does my work ladder up to the bigger picture?”), and gets to decisions faster (ex: “How do we move X forward?”).
Writing benefits the author
As the person with information to share, written documents force you to more thoroughly think through what you’re trying to communicate. When drafting a doc, I often start with a brain dump into a blank piece of virtual paper or a template, when one fits. Once I’ve got the thoughts out of my head, I ask myself:
- Will the audience understand the central point I’m trying to make?
- Am I clear on where I need their opinion and feedback?
- Am I clear on the level of “done” (ex: “This is an early draft I want you to tear apart” or “This is a final draft I need approval on”)?
- If I’m trying to persuade the readers, have I provided enough supporting data and research to convince them?
- Can I anticipate what questions they’ll ask or concerns they’ll have?
This process doesn’t have to be formal or take a long time. I’ve shared many documents written in 10 minutes that get the job done, and I’ve worked on bigger briefs that take me a few passes to get right. Even in those cases, I still share early with a smaller group I can confidently welcome into the mess, because that early feedback helps me shape my message.
Writing benefits the audience
Writing doesn’t just have benefits for the author — it also benefits the audience in a few key ways:
- Digesting information. Written artifacts allow people to digest information and react at their own pace. If you’ve ever been in a rapid-fire discussion in which you’re getting lots of new information thrown at you, you know it can be tough to express fully formed opinions, questions, comments, or counterpoints in a live setting.
- Reducing power dynamics. In live settings, there are also often power dynamics at play. The highest-paid person in the room may also be the loudest, while a more junior person who has lots of relevant context may be less comfortable sharing their ideas. The comment section in a doc is the ultimate equalizer — everyone’s avatars and text boxes are the same size!
- Improving access to information. Sometimes written artifacts benefit audiences not because they need to weigh in on the topic, but because the information is simply available. Just by having access to a document, a person or a team is able to make informed day-to-day decisions without needing to meet or have an extra conversation.
Written artifacts help organizations scale
While small teams can often get by on oral tradition, I still believe that working off a written artifact has huge benefits for all the reasons listed above. But when an organization grows without documenting their work, things start to break down quickly.
The most common way is that when teams grow, they unintentionally start re-creating the wheel in different parts of the organization. People don’t know that something they’re working on has been done before, and so they start with a blank sheet of paper rather than a template or best practice that’s been developed somewhere else. It’s a big productivity drain on the org.
Perhaps worst of all, however, is when you see mistakes from the past being repeated. Without good written artifacts, people don’t understand decisions that have been made in the past, and are more likely to repeat them. There is no way that you, as a leader, can be in every meeting, giving context to every employee.
If you want people to do their jobs effectively, you must write it down. You’ll find that the shared understanding and alignment makes the individual employees not only better at doing their day jobs, but helps them be a force multiplier for your organization’s goals.