Some organizations are said to have a "writing culture". They promote it as more objective & fair - it helps shy/introverted people express themselves and bridges the status gaps between people in different levels of org charts. Deliberate practice in writing improves the brevity & clarity of thought and makes knowledge sharing generally easier. Writing down things makes it easier to challenge ourselves, fine-tune the message we want to pass & extract reusable mental models.

Issues with "writing"

As you can see, writing culture has many advantages - I can only agree with that. Sadly, like with all types of cultures, many of these pros disappear when people stop seeing the reasoning behind them & start acting mechanically - e.g., by copying the behaviors of others without understanding.

Here's what can go wrong with writing culture:

  • Writing something no one cares about - I've covered it all here already.
  • Writing as a way to express status in poorly composed hierarchies - e.g., if the organizational pyramid is too high (too many levels), senior leaders lose touch with the trenches, so they feel obliged to bridge that gap by ... creating more written communication.
  • The fetishization of writing - Jeff Bezos has famously enforced brevity (by capping the length to N pages) & criticized using bullet points (in a "PowerPoint" style) - until this day, many senior folks in Amazon mindlessly remove all formatting & merge lists into massive walls of text that make my eyes bleed.
  • Writing without securing an effective feedback loop - with assumptions everyone has read and agreed with the doc, while, in fact, no one even opened it.
  • Writing overload - maybe some documents have an unclear purpose, there's an overlap in scope, there are no patterns/processes for a proper lifecycle (incl. deprecation), or sound information is put into the wrong formula (e.g., instead of one evergreen, there are tons of deltas no one controls).
  • Documents are good, but the general knowledge management tooling (& organization) sucks: content is not findable, versioning is counter-intuitive, collaboration functions only discourage folks from contributing, there are notorious problems with access rights or even ownership, etc.

These were only a few examples, but you've got the idea. These issues appear very different, but they all have one common root cause:  putting the emphasis on "writing" instead of "reading".

Bet on "reading" culture instead

But isn't it arguing about different ways to call the same thing? Po-tay-to, po-tah-to? Some phraseological boxing? No, changing optics here may have substantial results as the focus on "reading" (and "reader"!) provides the look (at the given topic) from a different perspective. You (the writer)  "step into the shoes" of the reader & are forced to ask yourself questions like these:

  1. Should I read it? Why did it reach me? What's the value in that for me? Does it add clarity or contribute to chaos?
  2. Is the message clear? Actionable? Should I do anything with that? Am I expected to do something about it now?
  3. Do I follow/agree with this train of thought? With conclusion/recommendation? Damn, is there a train of thought at all?
  4. If I was reaching this document proactively (e.g., by searching for it or navigating within some hierarchy): did I get the information I expected? Aren't there any contradictions? Is it still up-to-date? Is it clear who to contact in case of a question/problem?
  5. Do I have all the coherent information in one place? If the way of storing the knowledge I'm looking for is complex, is that complexity justified (by the domain's specifics), or is it due to suboptimal technical/process decisions?
  6. Last but not least: how will this impact my work from now on? Is it the 100th irrelevant enablement material that is not applicable to my daily job? The 200th "success" story that is supposed to boost my morale but is so detached that I don't care? Or the 300th "field BAU report" someone needs to justify the future promotion?

Reading culture doesn't just mean we read more than write (but yeah, that's one of the points). And it's not only about the fact that all written assets (just like code) are a liability: you either maintain them (mind the cost!), or they increase the communication overload. There's more than that. Reading culture means being critical (readers) - not just to grammar, syntax & brevity measured in pages, but rather: to goal, purpose, actionability & feasibility for execution. In a culture of furious, mindless writers, everyone is super busy writing documents, but there's very little going forth (except the writing, of course). Everyone is so focused on typing their own crap that they barely can't be bothered to check the scribbles of others.

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