Amber Case is author of Calm Technology and a Research Director at the Metagovernance Project. A frequent design consultant across many industries, she was previously a fellow at MIT’s Center for Civic Media and Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society.
When you’re working deep within a large organization, it may seem impossible to effect change.
With thousands of people working separately in very different departments, often in offices across the globe, most of us feel frustrated by organizational problems, and hopeless that they can ever be changed.
But I have found that within some of the largest and most successful organizations, the very opposite is true.
How Large Orgs Embrace Memos to Help Effect Change
Someone I know saw this first-hand during a visit to a division of Amazon, a company of over 1 million workers. Executives invited them to put together several ideas for improving new divisions of the company, but instead of a typical slide-based presentation, they were told to create 2 page Memos. The next thing they said was surprising.
‘We’ll select your best two proposals,’ the executive told them, ‘and you can pitch them directly to Jeff.’”
Yes: Jeff, as in Bezos. As it turns out, writing and reading Memos are integral to Amazon management.
One of Amazon’s organizational advantages is a culture that centers Memos — detailed, structured, and persuasive proposals shared within an organization.
In 2004, early in Amazon’s growth into an Internet giant, Bezos sent a company-wide email that banned the use of PowerPoint in executive meetings. Instead, whenever they were expected to present on an important managerial decision, he requires executives to write a detailed Memo.
What’s a Memo?
Sometimes simply called Memos or Memorandum (depending on the institution), Memos offer clarity and precision in communicating problems. They reduce ambiguity, foster collaboration, and are focused on actionable next steps.
The Memo format has a history of leading to tangible outcomes in large institutions. An enlisted member of the US military recently told me about the importance of memorandums within the armed forces — especially after the launch of the Reserve Forces Policy Board Overview, an independent advisory that sends policy recommendations directly to the Secretary of Defense.
Though junior in terms of command structure (an enlisted officer below the officer class) -– she wrote two Memos that passed all the way up the chain of command. Notably, one of these Memos outlined ways to improve how sexual harassment is reported within the ranks, so that that victims would not feel as isolated. After a 12 month review process, the proposalwas actually implemented, creating a major change in an organization with almost 50,000 members.
I’ve experienced the power of Memos myself. A Fast Company editor recently told me that my essay on LED lights, “Why tech’s favorite color is making us all miserable” was viewed over 2 million times; I even had friends who text the essay to me without realizing I was the author
Several years after publishing a Medium post on the problems with touchscreen interfaces in cars, several automotive companies contacted me, asking my advice on implementing my ideas.
These essays, which functioned much like Memos, lead to a greater awareness of issues in the design of technology, and inspired trackable changes in both the design of car cabins and blue light accessories. I realized that articles were basically “design” Memos, fleshed out for a mass media readership.
Sometimes, organizations might have systems that make them look like they are open to feedback, but the feedback has no way of being implemented. Concepts like Suggestion Boxes might be present at companies or organizations, but only convey the illusion of enabling input.
Not all memos in every organization are effective. Memo culture requires organizations that are open to embracing feedback.
Just as important, if not more so, is the quality of the Memo itself. Ranty or overly verbose Memos tend to be ignored, as do those which offer no concrete, actionable solutions.
After many discussions about Memos, I realized the approach was not as broadly known as it should be, especially among newer organizations. But what makes an effective Memo? And how can anyone create a short document that can affect organizational change?
Components of an Ideal Memo
Memos are structured communication tools used to convey problems, intents, rationales, and solutions. Good Memos aid in ensuring clarity and alignment across teams and stakeholders when considering changes.
Since Memos cater to diverse stakeholders, it’s crucial they appeal on various levels, and include these qualities:
- ETHOS: Highlight your expertise and reason for authority.
- PATHOS: Evoke emotions for deep resonance.
- LOGOS: Anchor with facts.
- ACTION: Outline clear implementation steps.
- CONTACT: Share your role, brief background, and how to reach you for further queries.
Brevity is also key. Memos should be tailored for succinct yet impactful content. Memos that fit on two pages or less is an ideal target range.
This very post roughly follows this structure: I began by stating my credentials, highlighted the frustration and helplessness most of us in large organizations feel, included case studies which offered a solution, then outlined an action plan for broadly implementing that solution.
A 10 Step Guide for Writing a Successful Memo
- Think! Identify an issue or problem within your organization that you want to address.
- Brainstorm why this problem exists. Think deeply and investigate the problem. Why does the problem exist? Where did it come from? Why? What kind of solutions might help eliminate this problem? Try to find the real core of the problem, not just the problem’s surface.
- Analyze stakeholders: Who might support or oppose a potential solution? What ideas do they care about? Map them out to consider their perspectives.
- Choose a solution to propose and structure the Memo. Common formats include introduction, problem, solution, conclusion.
- Write an Introduction stating the problem and proposed solution briefly.
- In the Problem section, describe the issue and its impact on the org in 1–3 paragraphs.
- In the Solution section, explain your proposed solution in one paragraph.
- In the Conclusion portion, briefly summarize your memo without restating everything.
- Consider your audience’s biases and motivations. For instance, if you know a senior person cares about efficiency, flavor your Memo to appeal to that initiative.
- Limit your Memo to two pages. People are busy. Short Design Memo have far greater chance of being read and acted upon.
Submitting Memos inside Large Organizations
While some Memos are about changing the world, most Memos are about internal change. This is where Step 3 of the above process, “Analyze stakeholders”, comes in. Generally, you’ll want your immediate supervisor’s buy-in and feedback incorporated into the Memo, so that they become advocates for it. You can even include approval letters from targeted stakeholders in the Memo’s attachments, so that it can gain momentum as it to key stakeholders in the organization.
Once you’ve released your Memo, you might not hear back for a while, or ever, until the Memo actually gets implemented. Again, it’s taken my military friend a year or two for her Memos to reach that stage. “I use them for when something is really important, and it’s okay if they move slowly,” as she puts it. She’s made change in big ways this way.
You should definitely write Design Memos on your own, but if you’d like to see some examples of successful Memos, I made a wiki page that lists a few:
The concept of Design Memos is very much a draft, and I very much welcome feedback on Twitter or in the comments below!