The 7 Magic Rules for a Document Culture

Learn how to create the perfect document culture with those 7 magic rules

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A document culture makes the difference between an average company and a successful one. If you have a strong document culture, decisions are based on facts and data, clearly written and documented for everyone to see. If you don’t, company direction is influenced by the most tenured, the most senior, the loudest voice in the room, and good ideas are often dismissed.

In this article, I will explain what a document culture is, and how to build one. I feel confident writing about document culture because this is what I implement in the company I own as a side hustle (Rational Scale), and in Amazon, where I currently work as Senior Tech Program Manager. Be aware, what you see here are my opinion’s only and not Amazon’s.

What is a Document Culture?

A document culture is made of two parts: culture, and document (as in, documentation). Culture is “how we do things around here”, it is the set of (mostly implicit) rules and behaviors people are expected to follow in your company. There are many cultural things in a company: working long hours or having a 4-days workweek, high travel intensity or mostly virtual meetings, expectation of immediate answer to emails or emails unanswered for days, and so on. Every behavior contributes to the culture. Culture is the how.

If culture is the how, document (or, rather, documentation) is the what. A document culture is an environment where people consistently work with documents. Decisions are documented in writing, discussion and brainstorming is guided by a document, and in general writing takes an important place in the company activities.

We can segment a document culture into two parts: production and consumption of documents. The document culture will define when and how you produce documents: do you write meeting notes after meeting? Do you come to meetings with a document to discuss? What is the format of the document, should it be long and detailed or concise? What is the writing style?

A document culture is about producing and consuming documents. Writing and reading, both must happen. Those are documents that may be distributed to the audience.
In a company with a strong document culture, documents like these may be distributed at the beginning of meetings.

Producing documents, however, is worthless unless people actually read them. This is the consumption part. A document culture should define when and how you are expected to consume documents. Do you read documents before coming to meetings, or during meetings? Are you expected to review some docs before doing a presentation? Where can you find historical documents about prior decisions? A document culture will typically answer all those questions.

Successful Document Culture in 7 Magic Rules

So, a document culture is about documents. But how and when can it be successful, what are the criteria that make it work? Like any other tool, document culture is just a mean to an end, which should be better and faster decisions. So, based on this, let me define what a successful document culture looks like.

  1. Document data and assumptions in the doc, so that everyone can see them. This is to avoid deciding on a chart on PowerPoint where only the presenter knows what is the data behind.
  2. Documents are not literature, they provide facts without embellishment. You don’t write about a “terrific user growth” or “mild margin drop”, you are specific about +2k users month-to-month and a 0.43% margin drop over the last quarter. Let the reader decide if that’s terrific or mild.
  3. Every document has a purpose. Think why you are writing this doc before starting to write it. Do you want to advise a decision, capture something that has happened in the past, ask for more resources for your project? Then, provide the data that supports this reasoning.
  4. Documents are meant to be read, and should be narratives. Write your ultimate number (e.g., 0.43% margin drop) in the text, and add an appendix at the end of the document to show how all the calculations that lead to this number. Don’t clog the reader in the main piece of writing with data that does not advance the point.
  5. Searching past documents should be easy, so that you can build on top of what you have done in the past and see why you made a decision. This will compound to massive learning for your company over time.
  6. Feedback is necessary: you don’t just write a document and post it somewhere. You ask people for feedback to make it better, you include their point of view in the new revision of the doc until you have the ultimate piece of writing that drives whatever outcome you needed to drive.
  7. Document tradeoffs and choices. Your document should not be a sales pitch for your idea, not an unbiased one at least. Spend the time to document what are the tradeoffs and negative components of your ideas, and the alternatives you considered and discarded (and write down why).

If your document culture adheres to these 7 magic points, then you are up for success. How much up to for success? See the next example.

Document Culture Success Story: Amazon

(Disclaimer: at the moment of writing this article, I work for Amazon. All opinions that you see here are my own, and not Amazon’s.)

One of the companies that is most proud of its document culture is Amazon. Since the early days, Jeff Bezos placed great importance on writing documents and use them for decision making. With no surprise, they use this as a marketing effort to lure in promising engineers with the “no PowerPoints” promise on website.

Watch this video where Llew Mason, a Vice President in Amazon, tells more about the writing culture.

As you can see, the document culture in Amazon reflects the 7 magic rules I wrote in the previous section of this guide. We all know how much Amazon has been successful: if you put 10k$ into Amazon in November 1997, after the IPO, and held it until Q2 2023, you would now have almost 11 million dollars. Of course, writing culture is not the only contributor to this massive growth: having talented staff, work in the right industries, and perhaps even a little bit of luck played a role. But arguably, a document culture is the systemic way Amazon consistently deliver good business decisions over and over. And, over time, they pay off.

True, some of the decisions may still not deliver the expected outcome, even when the decision is taken through strong documents review. But those cases are limited, the output the company gets from the “good” decisions surpasses significantly the cost of the “bad” ones.

Many business books, magazine articles, and blog posts have been written about the document culture of Amazon. And writing more would not add much value, especially because the 7 rules for a valid document culture are what you need to implement something similar in your company. But we can briefly touch on the types of documents you can find in Amazon.

  1. PR/FAQ (Press Release and Frequently Asked Questions), a document where you envision the press release you will publish when you deliver a new feature of product, and react to potential questions. You do this before even creating the product: this forces you to see it with the eyes of the customer and see if it is really worth pursuing.
  2. OP (Operating Plan), done twice a year, a plan for a team or organization of what they want to deliver over the coming 12 or 18 months.
  3. 3YP (3-Year Plan), similar to OP document but focused on a longer term (3 years)
  4. Business Reviews, documents that describe the state of the business for a product, project or team, and present some metrics. Often reviewed weekly, monthly, or quarterly depending on the actual document and type of audience.
  5. Promodoc (promotion document), when you as a manager want to promote one of your reports, you still need to argue why this is the best choice for the company in a document.

An interesting part is that there are no predefined templates. Every team and individual is free to craft each of those documents in a way that makes most sense for the circumstances. Most will be somewhat similar across team, but there might be occasional peculiarities.

Document Culture in Summary

I love writing, both for business and leisure, and I am a strong proponent of document culture. If all companies adopted this approach, then they would make much better decisions overall, and the world would be a better place. Interestingly, I believe that if governments and nation states were to do the same, it would pave the way for a less corrupt and more transparent world as well.

But don’t stop here dreaming with me. Continue your journey. If you are interested in writing, you can explore this article on how to take the best meeting notes. Instead, if you are interested in Amazon, you can learn how I aced the interview for AWS and got a senior job at age 26.

Alessandro Maggio

Alessandro Maggio

Project manager, critical-thinker, passionate about networking & coding. I believe that time is the most precious resource we have, and that technology can help us not to waste it. I founded with the same principle: I share what I learn so that you get value from it faster than I did.
Alessandro Maggio

Alessandro Maggio

Project manager, critical-thinker, passionate about networking & coding. I believe that time is the most precious resource we have, and that technology can help us not to waste it. I founded with the same principle: I share what I learn so that you get value from it faster than I did.

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