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Is there a place for exploratory writing in the workplace?

by Tom Johnson on Mar 10, 2020 •
categories: writing

In a recent episode of The Manuscript, a new podcast by Breno Barreto, Breno asked me questions about blogging and motivations and such. I explained two different modes of writing: explanatory writing versus exploratory writing. Technical documentation is explanatory writing, but many of the posts on my blog are exploratory. Breno asked whether there's a place for exploratory writing in the workplace. This is the great question that every humanities-based or otherwise curious person who is immersed in a corporate world must ask in order to thrive.

I’ve touched on these topics before in How to avoid being a secretary for engineers and other posts. So this is a theme I return to often, I guess.

To summarize, exploratory writing seeks to ask why, whereas explanatory writing seeks to answer how. Exploratory writing focuses on a question and seeks answers. Explanatory writing typically answers how a goal can be achieved using the tool or system at hand.

What excites me about exploratory writing is that you don’t always know the direction you’ll end up by the end of your essay. You start at point A and have a notion of ending up at point Z, but you have no idea whether you’ll get there, what twists and turns you’ll take. Surely the road isn’t mapped out, and the path to get to Z is anything but paved or familiar. In this post, I already laid out point A in the title — is there a place for exploratory writing in the workplace? Point Z is the answer: yes, there is a place for it in such and such context. Or no, there is no place for it due to these reasons. At this point, I’m not sure if I’ll get there.

Exploratory writing prompts reflection, and noodling on ideas, and researching what others have said and written on the matter. The spark of discovery is what energizes me about life — to use the tool of writing as a way to think and come to realizations and epiphanies that wouldn’t have likely been possible other than by writing about them. Isn’t that a wonder? It’s one reason I majored in English in college, earned an MFA in creative writing, and have continued this blog for the past 14 years. It’s not just that I like to write. I like to explore and discover new ideas through writing.

Coming back to the question about exploratory writing in the workplace, I have the privilege of working in a unique corporate context where writing plays a central role in meeting dynamics and decisions. At Amazon, if you want to put forward a new idea to get adoption, you start by writing a six-page document that dives into the depths of the idea with data and other research. As the meeting starts, you distribute the document and then everyone reads it for the next 20 minutes or so, depending on how long the document is. As the discussion begins, people proceed through the written content with questions and comments.

Bezos is famous for implementing this approach in meetings, as it reduces the chances that an idea gets adopted out of sheer charisma from a presenter’s pitch of an idea. It instead forces you to think deeply about a topic and make a case for it.

In Jeff Bezos: This is the ‘smartest thing we ever did’ at Amazon, CNBC writes,

Jeff Bezos has a nontraditional management style at Amazon, and he says Amazon’s unique twist on meeting structure is the “smartest thing we ever did.”

“Many, many years ago, we outlawed PowerPoint presentations at Amazon,” Bezos said at the Bush Center’s Forum on Leadership in 2018. “And it’s probably the smartest thing we ever did.”

To replace the PowerPoint presentations, Bezos created a new way to hold meetings: Meetings start with each attendee sitting and silently reading a “six-page, narratively-structured memo” for about the first 30 minutes of the meeting.

“[The memo is] supposed to create the context for what will then be a good discussion,” Bezos said.)

Is this type of business writing exploratory writing? It certainly could be. At the heart of many of these business documents is a decision to be made. Should we go in a certain direction? Should a specific approach be implemented? Why? That pivot to the why defines the heart of exploratory writing.

Granted, the narrative mode of business documents isn’t so fun to read. You won’t find yourself engaged with a conversational personal essayist leading you through a tour of observations and articulate insights. Instead, the business documents mimic more of the scholar’s discourse, with densely packed sentences, a scarcity of adjectives, a preponderance of jargon and audience assumptions, and long paragraphs. You won’t find images or graphs, or many long quotes and such. Everything is crammed into six pages, and where you want to elaborate with detail, the content is pushed into an appendix that few read due to lack of time.

In my four years at Amazon, I’ve only written one such business document. It was a comparative analysis describing the developer journeys on Fire TV versus Roku. I walked through all the steps developers would take on the two platforms to develop a Fire TV app. When I started the document, I didn’t know about the “six-pager” genre, so this document was around 40 pages with screenshots. After learning about the acceptable corporate genres, I ended up compressing it into 6 pages with a 30 page appendix.

Why did I write it? One of the business leaders in our group thought it would be a good way to make our group more visible. And it was, actually. I pitched the document to people several levels above me. One person told me that leaders are hungry for this sort of information and are eager for more of this business analysis content. The document definitely made our group more visible, though not for our documentation.

My problem with this document was that it didn’t have clear action items and owners for each of the recommendations. As you can imagine, the developer journey touches across many different organizational endpoints, and getting traction for the action items would have required me to sit down with each owner (half a dozen people or more). In the end, I became swamped with other documentation tasks and postponed any kind of campaign to rally change with all the various owners. But it was an interesting process. One of the most senior leaders who read the doc told me he scribbled “writer” in the margins and could tell that I had a writing background. So even in this discourse of business writing, perhaps writing skills do come to the surface.

I hadn’t thought about doing more business writing until a recent off-site meeting where another leader held a workshop on business writing, talking about various strategies. Most of these strategies were basic principles for any professional writing. For example, avoid jargon. Define acronyms. Focus your thoughts in your paragraphs into a central idea. Go easy on the adjectives.

As I was sitting there, it dawned on me that maybe I should be doing a lot more of this type of writing. Why wasn’t I? I consider myself a critical thinker, one who can research and analyze and synthesize information. Why wasn’t I engaging with the core issues of the business at the higher level? Why wasn’t I killing it with my writing skills in this space? Am I just letting my talents sit dormant while people all around me write poorly worded business documents with herd-mentality thoughts and hasty, non-evidence-based conclusions?

And then I remembered all the documentation I had to write, the upcoming deadlines, the open tickets and emails from people asking about this and that. And I postponed the efforts once again.

This is really the crux of it all — we are overloaded with mundane documentation tasks and find little time to explore and write about new ideas, but the lifeblood of any company is in continual innovation. Perhaps a sacrifice of time and productivity in the short-term (letting some documentation tasks pile up) is the inevitable tradeoff for the more exploratory, critical thinking that may or may not lead to long-term innovation.

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