TBM 9/52: Writing Culture Challenges
I frequently get asked, "how do I promote a writing culture at my company?"
Here is how I responded recently.
A writing culture is a reading culture and a feedback-giving culture.
A write-and-reading-and-feedback-giving culture requires time to think, process, and respond. Writing isn't the end goal: thinking and improving is the goal. In contrast, presentation cultures predominate in either:
Conditions of high reactivity, cognitive load, and passivity. No one has time or energy to think, ask questions, and process. Too much energy goes into doing and reacting. Or…
Environments with anointed thinkers and doers. The thinkers think and broadcast their intent to the doers. Doers do and broadcast their status to thinkers. "Why is this upstart engineer asking this question?!" Sometimes they end up hiring make-them-do-ers who act as the go-between.
Environments that do a lot of writing, but the writing isn't for feedback and dialogue. It is transactional. Write X, get approval, Do Y. Write X, make the requested fixes, and pass phase-gate Y.
In situations with no apparent owners (or many dependencies), everyone has to go around and rapidly pitch whatever is on their mind to get anything done. This is what I call traveling salesperson mode, and it is widespread.
Paranoid cultures where the thought of any public discourse that might derail the narrative is considered dangerous. Presentations are the ultimate scripted performance. "Edits" are a choreographed dance of seniority and filtering.
The first step to thinking about the path to a writing culture is to understand WHY a presentation culture is firmly entrenched at your company.
Side note: There's another role to presentation culture, which is harder to unpack. With more and more people working remotely, presentations—when done well—can offer a sense of place and story.
But back to writing—two stories:
Most people are familiar with a "silent read" to start a meeting. I recently suggested to a startup founder that they open specific meetings with a ten-minute silent read, and the response was telling:
We can't do that! Our time is precious, and people can do that in their downtime. What does that tell us about our culture here if we can't talk about this?
The thought of silence terrified them, and it signaled inactivity and passivity. "Down-time" was for thinking; "Go-time" was for coding or talking. The discussion made them visibly squirm.
A busy SVP friend explained that the best time for reading was "international flights". "That's when I catch up on all the memos," they explained. "People know my turnaround is faster when I have to fly, so I magically get a bunch of docs the day before I leave." That's funny, but what does that say about their schedule and the ratio of focused/thoughtful time to hurried, frenetic time?
Both stories are telling. Between having no time (and doing ostensibly critical things) and finding any public introspection unbearable, there's not a lot of room for writing.
But this speaks to something even more fundamental: you can't just "switch" to writing culture. It has very little to do with the writing and everything to do with the preoccupation with busyness, optics, power, control, and tempo. In many jobs, we are sleep-working under the guise of hustle. Work-in-progess, change-in-progress, and planning-in-progress is just too high to think.
So what can you do?
A writing culture starts with time and intentionality. It starts with setting aside the time.
Leaders set the tone. Write something, and open it up for comments.
Find one ritual that exists already—a kickoff, review, etc.—and try to introduce a SHORT writing component into the activity. This is key. It has to mean something! There has to be something “in it” for the writer, the reviewers, and the broader audience. Don’t just jump into a writing massive memos with no muscle for actually integrating those memos into the day-to-day.
Ask a coworker if they'd be up for reviewing something in exchange for you reviewing something. Plan a) time to write, b) time to review, and c) time to debrief. Schedule a quarter of blocks.
Set yourself and team members realistic challenges like short, 3-5 bullet summaries of key issues. 3-5 well-crafted bullets can take 15-30 minutes. Reviews will take 5 minutes. Try something more manageable than a one-pager, six-pager, etc.
Silent reads are good, but so are silent writes. Writing on demand takes practice, but try something like 15m silent writing, 15m silent reading, 15m silent writing, and combining ideas for 15 minutes.
Try as hard as possible to resist the idea that a PM will magically write a PRD, and then never look at it again once everyone buys in. Keep a document "living". Make these documents a progressive exploration with regular collaboration.
Try lists of questions. Leave it optional to answer all questions, but provide some structure for new writers.
A bold CEO or CPO might try a writing day—interspersing writing with review and commenting. Imagine how much clarity you could get in 8 hours of that?
Go with something more accessible to "start," like a mind map. Write the mind map, and then review it in person. See how that shapes the conversation.
Pair write. It sounds crazy, but it can work.
Above all, the shift to a writing culture requires a shift to an intentional and reflective approach to work. Start there, and the rest will take care of itself.
Exactly right! This article hit home for me. There were times when I lost the (right) motivation to write (to learn). And times when there was too much WIP or change-in-progress. This was so good I had to write about it! Posted it on LinkedIn just now.
John, what has been your experience with this while switching companies?