Read the memo Goldman’s new tech chief sent to 9,000-plus engineers explaining why they should ditch PowerPoint in favor of Amazon’s famous narrative memos

Hello Team,

Thanks to all of you who joined this week’s Global Engineering townhall. I really enjoyed seeing so many new faces and answering your questions, and experiencing Elisha’s songwriting, singing and guitar-playing abilities first hand. Hopefully, Atte and I were able to get across what we are excited about, what we deeply care for, and how we see Goldman Sachs Engineering evolving over the coming years.

I wanted to take the opportunity to drill down a bit on one topic that I mentioned during the townhall, which is my preference for narrative memos over presentations. For some, this will make me sound a bit like a broken record, so please bear with me or feel free to skip. By the way, Elisha came up with a Top 10 list already: things that Marco thinks while he’s pretending to read your memo. If you are curious, you can ask him directly 🙂

I thought I’d spend a few minutes reflecting on why I think a written approach is particularly useful when making decisions. (It can be useful in other contexts too, such as when posting another team on a project.)

As I mentioned during the townhall, I was first exposed to this narrative practice at Amazon. I have to confess that the first time I presented a document, and the folks in the room sat there in complete silence reading and annotating for half an hour, the whole experience felt quite awkward. 

What happened next, though, was illuminating. Since everyone had exactly the same information, there was no need to level-set. Many of the questions attendees might have asked during a presentation (only to find them answered on a subsequent slide) had already been addressed by the frequently asked questions section of the doc. The group was able to discuss and come to a decision very quickly. In that one meeting, I was sold on the mechanism.

For that, it is first and foremost a mechanism for Inclusion, that ensures that your voice is heard and you get the full and undivided attention of your reader. Arguably, the most important outcome of having written memos is that they reveal whether you have a clear and crisp mental model about what you are writing about. It’s impossible to write something convincing when your thinking isn’t clear, so the process naturally ensures deeper analysis. 

If you’re interested in trying out the narrative memo style, we will soon publish some guidelines and samples you can follow. In the meantime, here are a few points to keep in mind:

  • Always start from the customer, and work backwards from that. Be sure to answer five key questions: Who is the customer, whether internal or external? What is the customer’s problem or opportunity? What is the most important customer benefit? How do you know what customers want? What does the customer experience look like?
  • Be as crisp and precise as you can be. Avoid fuzzy, high level statements that could be interpreted in many ways. Use simple language. The document is not to show how great of a writer you are. It’s there to put the readers in the best possible position to understand an issue and make the right decision.
  • Be objective, factual and humble. Do not be afraid to talk about your failures in addition to your successes. Ask yourself the hardest questions, and answer them objectively without bias.

The purpose of the narrative memo is to present facts and suggestions. If a current solution is suboptimal, it should be clear from the data. If you have a better idea, it should be clear from the text, with no need for embellishment.

It is important to note that creating a memo is not meant to introduce bureaucracy. There are many team meetings that can function just fine without a one-, three-, or six-pager. There are client presentations that will require decks. That being said, when gathering a group of decision makers to take action, I’ve found the format to be the most effective. It’s not my intention to force the adoption of this mechanism, but you may want to experiment with it and see if you experience the benefits that I talked about. Some colleagues around Goldman Sachs have already been using memos for a while, and others have been trying them.

If you have any thoughts or comments, I’d love to hear them. You can reach me by e-mail or Symphony.



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