(I originally published this on LinkedIn, 2015)
Amazon.com has a famous practice of making its meeting time more productive by having executives sit in a room together and begin the meeting by reading detailed six-page narratives. (See http://research.gigaom.com/2013/10/flipped-meetings/, http://fortune.com/2012/11/16/amazons-jeff-bezos-the-ultimate-disrupter/ and https://www.quora.com/How-are-the-six-page-3/10/narratives-structured-in-Jeff-Bezos-S-Team-meetings). The papers are structured like a dissertation defense:
- The context or question.
- Approaches to answer the question – by whom, by which method, and their conclusions.
- How is your attempt at answering the question different or the same from previous approaches.
- Now what? – that is, what’s in it for the customer, the company, and how does the answer to the question enable innovation on behalf of the customer.
In the articles above, many benefits are cited, but really, all that needs to be said is that this is obviously far superior to PowerPoint since it is aimed at intelligent, deeply analytical people rather than "leaders" who are too busy to read.
I recently read a book called Battleship Victory: Principles of Seapower in the War in the Pacific by Robert Lundgren that will be published by one of my companies, Nimble Books, on Dec. 7, 2015. One of the nice things about the book is that the author excerpts original memos by the commanders of each fleet for each of the major battles of the War in the Pacific. When I read the memos prepared by the Japanese commander, Isoruku Yamamoto, and the American commander, Chester Nimitz, I was struck by the difference in quality. Yamamoto's memo is marred by two huge unsupported and inaccurate assumptions.
j) The enemy is not aware of our plans.
k) It is not believed that the enemy has any powerful unit, with carriers as its nucleus, in the vicinity.
In fact, the Americans had broken the Japanese codes and were fully aware of Japanese plans, and had positioned three aircraft carriers to ambush the otherwise vastly superior Japanese forces.
Nimitz's memo on the other hand, is a masterpiece of analytical narrative thinking. In fact, it is a lot like an outstanding Amazon six-pager. It is divided into five sections.
- Mission -- with sections on The Problem and Situation
- Survey of Opposing Strengths
- Enemy Courses of Action
- Own Courses of Action
- Dispositions and Future Decisions
The mission is spelled out with admirable precision.
1. There are indications that the enemy will make a strong simultaneous effort, commencing after May 26, 1942, to
(a) Capture MIDWAY for possible subsequent operations against Oahu and
(b) Capture an advanced position in the ALEUTIAN ISLANDS.
The problem here considered is how to deal with that enemy effort, while continuing to carry out tasks assigned but not directly related to this problem.
Section 2, "Survey of Opposing Strengths", includes a detailed assessment of the characteristics of the theatre, including hydrology, weather, and terrain; highly accurate orders of battle (unlike the Japanese appreciation of American strength); logistics; and the fighting characteristics of each arm of each navy, including both technology and morale. In other words, an excellent SWOT analysis that provides deep quantitative and qualitative understanding of the situation.
Amazon has the advantage that its complete instrumentation of its heavily trafficked website gives it deep understanding into its customers. Nimitz had the advantage that American cryptographers led by Joseph Rochefort had broken the Japanese code JN-25. Amazon is the master of logistics; Nimitz correctly appreciated that the length of the Japanese supply chain was a crucial weakness and constraint (it meant that lengthy occupation of Midway would be highly problematic). Amazon has"big data" that it spends billions to interpret; Nimitz had "right data" at the right level of resolution.
Section 4, "Own Courses of Action", begins with a crisp formulation of "decisions taken", what we today might call "action items".
- We have decided:
(a) To retain the battleships on the West Coast.
(b) To employ Task Force SIXTEEN to the northeast of MIDWAY initially as soon as possible.
(c) To employ Task Force EIGHT in the ALEUTIANS.
(d) To initially employ a submarine screen of 6 fleet submarines off MIDWAY.
(e) To employ Task Force SEVENTEEN in the MIDWAY OAHU Area if temporary repairs can be made at Pearl. Otherwise the YORKTOWN will be sent to Bremerton.
(f) To expedite the arrival of the SARATOGA in the HAWAIIAN Area.
(g) To reinforce the submarine screen with.6 fleet submarines at Pearl as soon as possible.
(h) To reinforce MIDWAY with PBYs, AA, and a small Raider Group.
(I) To alert forces in the HAWAIIAN Area.
(j) To clear Pearl Harbor of ships as much as is possible.
(k) To hold Army bombers enroute to AUSTRALIA at OAHU during the present emergency.
(l) To use MIDWAY to stage Army bombers to enemy carriers.
Authority is delegated and effective guidance is provided:
Not only our directive from Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Fleet, but also common sense dictates that we cannot now afford to slug it out with the probably superior approaching Japanese forces. We must endeavor to reduce his forces by attrition - submarine attacks, air bombing, attack on isolated units. The principle of calculated chance is indicated, as set forth in a letter of instructions to Task Force EIGHT. If attrition is successful the enemy must accept the failure of his venture or risk battle on disadvantageous terms for him.
In the light of hindsight, almost every aspect of this memo is both prescient and accurate. It could easily be a six-pager presented to Jeff Bezos! It's hard to imagine modern American admirals and generals sitting in a silent meeting room together reading a close-spaced memo rather than watching a PowerPoint presentation. Times have changed, and not for the better. Let's hope the Amazon way reaches a broader audience someday