Since “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace” by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld appeared in the New York Times on August 15, 2015, the behemoth company, its founder Jeff Bezos, and especially its working conditions have been taking a beating. Describing a culture of extreme competitiveness, lots of disagreement and conflict, long and grueling hours, regular sabotage of fellow employees, “unreasonably high standards,” and “purposeful Darwinism,” the authors raised questions about this workplace environment and the relationship of that environment to the stupendous success experienced by Amazon. After the story hit, others rushed to defend Amazon; Bezos himself said he didn’t recognize the company reported on by the Times. Thoughtful commentators on all sides wondered about Amazon as the face of a new work paradigm in the U.S. and about how to balance fair play for employees with what Bezos calls an “obsession with customers” and their satisfaction.Intrigued by the uproar surrounding Bezos and Amazon, I did a little looking around to find out more, especially about Bezos, declared “Businessman of the Year” by Forbes Magazine in 2012. For years I have tried not to buy books on Amazon, preferring to buy from my local independent bookseller. But I buy a lot of other things from Amazon: do I want to continue this practice?
I’m still trying to answer that question, but in the meantime I found a fascinating Charlie Rose interview with Bezos from November 15, 2012. The conversation was friendly and free-wheeling; Bezos came across as smart, forward-looking, and witty. But what fascinated me was his discussion of Amazon meetings. For these meetings, PowerPoint and other presentational tools are banned. Instead, the leader of any meeting prepares a six-page memo. Bezos says that presentation slides are easy for the presenter but hard for the audience because they leave out so much information, are often not logically connected, and are, hence, unsatisfying. Working out a careful six-page narrative memo, he told Rose, calls for “deeper thinking” and “clarity.” When the meeting convenes, the leader distributes the memo and a thirty-minute “study hall” begins, during which the attendees read the memo and make notes. Only then does discussion begin. Bezos said that this method saves time in the long run because 1) everyone is reading it together so it will be fresh in their minds; and 2) the kinds of questions people tend to ask—ones that are often answered in the next slide or paragraph—aren’t necessary. This process of reading and discussing the memos, Bezos said, fuels the kind of inventiveness that Amazon is known for.
When I speak with teachers around the country, I often say that one of the greatest challenges we face today is figuring out how to hold on to and honor the best of the old literacy while allowing our students to experiment with the best of the new literacies. When I’m asked what about the “old literacy” I want to sustain, I almost always respond by pointing to the ability to mount and sustain a carefully researched, carefully reasoned, compelling argument, the antithesis of the five-second advertisement or TV spot. I say this because I believe that a democracy demands citizens who can think through complex issues, look at all sides, and conduct research necessary to make—and share—convincing ideas and arguments. And we know that this is a skill that can and must be learned: children are born with the ability to make powerful arguments (an insistent cry or a feverish “no” being among them), but we are not born making cogent, sustained, research-based arguments.
So the jury may be out on Amazon and its workplace practices. But I am with Bezos 100% on the value of the six-page memo.