Writing is Thinking

John Masson April 5, 2019

This is part one of two, on the importance of creating a writing culture.

The title, the whole idea really, comes from this Medium post by Steven Sinofsky, which is an annotated version of this thread on Twitter. I’ll be pulling some quotes from there (in italics), but it’s well worth reading each yourself.

To state my bias up front, this is an idea that appeals to me at face value. I like writing, and find it always brings clarity. So in part, this is a bit of a meta-example. By writing about it, I want to explore my own thoughts and decide what I really think - do I just like the sound of this, or is it actually useful? If it is, why don’t I do it more often?

While I do find it enjoyable, I also find writing hard to do well (as anyone who’s read an email I’ve bashed out quickly will attest to…) and definitely time consuming. That’s the obvious answer to why we don’t always do it, so I’ll start there. Sinofsky doesn’t shy away from this point either.

image

Writing is hard

Writing is super hard. It takes more time to write than it does to talk. It also takes more time to write a page of text than a single slide.

This is obvious, but an interesting comparison to explore. In case you didn’t read the thread, I’ll add the comparison he made here. 

A story
A story
A slide
A slide

It’s pretty clear how much detail is missing in the slide versus the story…

If I had that experience, and shared it with you via that slide, two things happen:

  1. To you, the original details are lost, forever.
  2. People will make up the missing details themselves.

Think of this as a team trying to join in a lesson. Think about trying to share this lesson multiple times. Think about a new team member who only has this slide.

I get why he used ‘Slides’ as the example, and while Death by Powerpoint isn’t really a thing at Trineo, I suspect we may make up for it by death by Slack messages, Google Meets, or desk walk-ups, with similarly lossy results.

Now imagine that slide somehow made its way through a few people to Jira, as a story title and some ACs. You might spend six months building something that misses the real point, or worse, something that was just a tangential anecdote to it...

So what is it about the written example that makes it worth spending time on?

Context

Taking the time to write allows you to provide context. This matters for everything we do. From Trineo’s strategy to an individual product feature we're building somewhere.

The key to achieving any goal as a team is having a shared understanding of what you’re going after, so everyone can go in the same direction. This needs the details, the context, kept intact and widely shared.

In practice, I think this requires the upfront investment in writing about the ‘raw materials’ that go into your work. They obviously need refining into a clear articulation of what needs to happen, but it should include a thorough exploration of the thinking that lead you there, so people can weigh up the same information and arrive at the same conclusion too. That’s real understanding, and it prevents things going off the rails later.

From the minute execution begins on a product (or decision or GTM or…) the divergence from the plan begins. If the plan is a deck or a speech, divergence is instant and rapid. With a detailed plan because people making all the “micro-decisions” day in and day out have the context for the plan—the framework, rationale, logic behind the decision—the organization is far more likely to make consistent tradeoffs.

This is why the Trineo values aren’t just six dot points on a page. Each one has its own context, and they were shared (internally) with the wider context of how they were arrived at and why they’re worth considering.

In a product development context the “micro-decisions” accumulate as the team makes implementation choices about what to build and how to meet the shared goal. Understanding that goal, and the why behind it matter immensely.

Collaboration

[…] you can’t have plans, especially shared plans, without writing.

The context and why behind our work typically emerges from the input of a number of people in our teams, our customers, and their customers.

The act of writing forces a team of experts to share the details of goals—not just the what, but the why, what else was considered, the history, context.

Writing something together is obviously collaborative. Writing yourself feels like a very solo pursuit, but when you think about it, it’s almost always done to (eventually) share - whether starting something new, providing a response or building on top of someone else's words, that’s a collaborative pursuit as well.

It’s definitely much more asynchronous than other forms of collaboration. That might be what makes it so useful, especially for working through complex problems. More on that later though.

Writing is more inclusive. It is easier to contribute, doesn’t reward bullies and bullshitters, and allows for contemplation.

I don’t think it’s worth glossing over the way asynchronous collaboration like this can allow more people to contribute more fully to discussions and decisions. As well as things such as English skills, seniority and all the other hidden biases we don’t think we have that influence us, writing (compared especially to meetings) also levels the playing field a lot for distributed teams, which is all of our project teams, as well as Team Trineo itself.

It also strikes me that reading the well considered thoughts of someone else is a very easy environment in which to stop, think and Seek First To Understand, our first value.

Contemplation

Make good decisions is another value:

"We make careful, sometimes conservative and very well considered decisions driven by the motivation to do the right thing for our people and our company. We always act with integrity, honesty and transparency. We make good decisions when we avoid immediate reaction, listen well, assume nothing, gather the facts, seek counsel from our peers and think calmly with clarity."

Providing context and fuelling meaningful collaboration might be good outcomes, but you won’t get either without first refining the information you’ve gathered and thoughts that you have into meaningful (to yourself and your audience) knowledge to be considered.

The act of writing, forces the author to think through all the details and steps required to share the lesson. It avoids what happens in business all the time which is “I just know” or “experience” and brings along the team and other job functions on thinking.

I find this to be incredibly true. How often have you had an idea rattling around in your head that seems totally plausible (e.g. every “It’s like Uber for…” idea you’ve ever had...). But then you sit down to write it out and all you have is two sentences that don’t make sense and a flashing cursor… No? Just me? Ok…

[…] the process of writing and sharing thoughts is clarifying AND collaborating itself

Writing is the forcing function to clarify your thoughts and find out if they’re valuable, to sift through them to see which contradict, which are unfinished and which are just plain wrong.

It’s this hard work that turns ideas, snippets of conversation, notes from meetings and everywhere else from ‘data’ into ‘wisdom’, that’s ready to be shared.

Now what?

I’ve been thinking and talking to people about this idea for a while. It resonated with many. Our CEO, Abhinav Keswani told me:

"I have always used writing to distil, test and refine my thoughts on something. […] Let’s get started."

Nathan, a colleague in the Sydney office said:

"Writing is, as far as I can tell, one of our greatest technologies. Thoughts that undergo non-fixed length curation. You get unlimited time to scrupulously interrogate your thoughts. Even writing this I had to pause to try work out what I'm thinking. When it really clicks, that writing is that powerful, I don’t know why we don’t do it more."

I posted a version of this a few months ago inside of Trineo, noting that I had at least convinced myself and hoped others would join me. Since then we’ve had many, many people sharing, typically though blogs (we use Confluence for this) in an incredibly positive way. It’s providing clearer communications, a focal point for considered discussions and you can see where it leads to better decisions.

In my next post, I’ll expand on why we needed to (and did) use writing like this to share more stories, helping to share our culture throughout the distributed team and lay a scaffolding of good decisions for people to reference.

In the meantime, I’d encourage you to think about what’s on your mind that could benefit from some written contemplation? If you’re not sure how to start, I recommend reading this excellent post that was inspired by the one I’ve been referencing.

I look forward to reading.

John Masson

John Masson