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How Do You Write a Memo?

How Do You Write a Memo?

You're probably aware of Amazon's memo culture, which is fetishized in the tech world as yet another example of Bezosian genius.

Here's the short version of how it goes:

  • Bezos banned PPTs a long time ago
  • Narrative memos took their place
  • A standard formed around six-page memos
  • Meetings start with 20 mins of silent reading

There are some pointers about writing memos in the (very good) book Working Backwards.

Amazon's memo culture is something that sounds obviously superior to everyone living in presentation hell. But if you talk to anyone who's ever written a memo, or anyone who's ever tried adopting the culture, you'll hear one common refrain:

Amazon-standard memos are very difficult to write.

They take a ton of time to produce. They require the entire company to be bought in. It just takes one senior leader who gets fed up to make the whole thing fall apart. This has the predictable result of people dropping the memo culture and going back to whatever they were doing before.

This is a shame, because writing memos is an extremely valuable skill as you progress in your career – it encompasses the meta-skills of synthesizing information and controlling your own narrative.

Here are 3 memo formats that help you flex your synthesis and narrative muscles, without going down the discouraging path of aiming for Amazon standards.

#1 – SCQA (Situation, Complication, Question, Answer)

This memo format is excellent if you're walking someone through your thinking. SCQA is very useful if you need to "show your work" about how you got to a conclusion.

  • Situation – background information that leads to the
  • Complication – an issue that needs resolution, which you distill down into a
  • Question – your diagnosis of the fulcrum point, leading to your proposed
  • Answer – your prescription of how to resolve the issue.

SCQA is good if there's a tricky situation where you're trying to spur debate, or where you're asking people to stress-test your ideas.

#2 – The Pyramid Principle

This narrative structure is perfect if you're presenting to a time-poor person, and you have a clear recommendation. You use SCQA to get to your answer, then use the Pyramid to present your findings:

  • The answer
  • Points that support your answer
  • Facts or data that lead you to your points

Without getting too deep into consulting nerd history, SCQA is a part of the Pyramid Principle approach, but you can use them separately for different purposes.

#3 – OGSM (Objectives, Goals, Strategy, Measures)

OGSM is really great for connecting high level strategy into tactical plans and project plans. It's really good for "one pagers" that encompass thinking on one page. It's less of a persuasive tool compared to SCQA and Pyramid.

  • Objectives – what you're trying to accomplish
  • Goals – outcomes that show progress toward objectives
  • Strategy – your approach to achieve your goals
  • Measures – metrics and signals on whether your strategy is working

OGSM itself has a really interesting history (apparently used in the reconstruction of Post-ww2 Japan) but I learned about it from reading about P&G.

Once you internalize these memo formats, you'll also pick up on the ability to more easily dissect others' (and your own) arguments, because you'll have a stronger intuition for missing pieces.

For example, most teams can be aligned on SC, but have different ideas on Q, leading to different A's. Having tools in your toolbox for getting everyone on the same page is extremely useful as you progress in your career.