BL&T No. 125: Introducing Memos to Quarterly Sessions

Company Culture

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"Enthusiastic teams, who felt their idea could not be adequately expressed in a [4 page memo], came in with 30 or 40 pages of prose. When authors learned that we were serious about a page limit, some squeezed as much as text onto a page as possible, using tiny fonts, reducing the width of the margins, and single-spacing the text. We wanted to go back to the benefits of writing, but not to the look of a sixteenth-century document. Gradually, we settled on a standard format. Maximum length: six pages, no desperate tricks in formatting please. Appendices with further information or supporting detail could be attached, but would not be required reading in the meeting itself."

From "Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Inside Amazon" by Colin Bryar and Bill Carr [Book]


In July, we evolved our quarterly sessions with Team Leads to incorporate more insights from the entire Barrel team. Read more about the process in this post. We tweaked the agenda again in October to dedicate more time for discussion.

While these improvements were worthwhile, the general sentiment was that we still didn't have enough time to align on focus areas for the coming quarter. To increase discussion time without exceeding our 3-hour time slot, I saw an opportunity to lean into prep work and leverage writing/reading as a tool to do so.

Introducing Memos

Kicking off Q1 this year, I was excited to introduce a more drastic change with these goals in mind:

  1. Make more time to discuss key topics while everyone is together vs. listening to presentations
  2. Create space for Team Leads to reflect more deeply about the past quarter and team debrief session vs. synthesizing their team’s notes
  3. Think bigger about each team’s focus for the coming quarter and what will have the most impact vs. highlighting several small ideas

Rather than Team Leads synthesizing their debrief notes, we asked them to come prepared with a memo outlining their focus for the coming quarter (based on their observations from the past three months and insights from their debriefs). In the context of quarterly debriefs, writing felt like an effective way to inspire more in-depth reflection on the past 90 days among Team Leads. In addition, we required everyone to read the memos and come prepared with thoughts ahead of time, so any time typically spent for presentations could be reallocated to open dialogue.

The format for memos was loose but framed around the questions below:

  1. How did your team debrief go this quarter? What was the overall sentiment and engagement? How will you improve this meeting next quarter?
  2. What do you believe is the primary focus area for your team next quarter?
  3. Why is your focus important and how does it tie to the overall performance of the business? Client satisfaction and retention, account growth, project profitability, and revenue growth.
  4. As a leader, what will you do differently next quarter to help your team make progress? How will your actions and behaviors facilitate progress?

Considerations for Next Time

Overall, I was happy with how the session went. Everyone appreciated having more time to review focus areas and commented on how thoughtful the discussion felt. At the same time, Team Leads weren't thrilled with the new writing requirement. This feedback led to a good conversation about how we could make writing the memos feel more energizing.

Here are some of the considerations that are top of mind for next quarter:

  • Memo Guidelines: The format for the memo was too open-ended. Team Leads mentioned they'd feel better about writing if they had more guidelines, specifically on length. As a side note, I wrote a memo and sent it as a reference prior to our meeting. It was lengthy, and some saw it as an unrealistic expectation. In hindsight, without any guidance, this was not as helpful as I intended.
  • Improving Discussion: Getting the discussion started on the memos during our meeting was slow. I'll be rethinking this part of the agenda next quarter to make it easier for folks to weigh in. We'll likely evolve the discussion to be more interactive, using FigJam to organize thoughts visually.
  • Designated Reading Time: I was chatting with someone from Amazon about 4 page memos, a staple of Amazon culture and inspiration for me. They talked about how everyone reads the memo at the start of the meeting together. The idea is that creating space for undivided attention is how you get the best ideas and input. I don't know that adding reading time to our session is the right move; however, I'm intrigued by the thinking.
  • Memo Format: I don't see us veering too far away from the intent of the questions outlined above. That said, I think there is more structure we can introduce to prompt discussion and make sure the Team Leads leave with what they need to move forward. For instance, what questions need answers in order to take the first step? What options are there for moving forward? What are the pros and cons of each?

Thought Starter

How might writing inspire deeper reflection and new ideas within my team?


The E-Commerce Corner

A client in the premium jewelry space saw their desktop e-commerce website convert at double the rate of mobile, despite lower traffic on desktop. They felt this was expected, given the price of their products. However, upon further investigation, we found several issues, including bugs creating friction at checkout. We continue to see customers more willing to checkout on mobile, even with higher price point products, but only if the experience feels simple, seamless, and safe.

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