We share so much on our digital streams and feeds that we often think another artfully filtered picture of lunch is what others are craving to see and "like."
Yet the sharing ways of social media haven’t quite made it to the work world. So while your coworkers likely don't want to see an Instagram of what you had for lunch, they probably wouldn’t mind knowing what you are working on post-sandwich.
One of the biggest challenges of knowledge work is its lack of visibility. Getting a clear picture of what’s going on in a collection of minds, including your own, is much more difficult than seeing the visible progress of constructing a house or assembling a physical product. And when you can’t see what you’re building together as a company, it takes extra time, effort, and work to manage problems, progress, and processes.
So how do you make the invisible visible?
Writing is such a commonplace act that its power as a tool in the modern workplace is often overlooked. You jot down a quick to-do list, you take notes at a meeting, you tap out responses to emails, and it seems like you’re writing all the time. Yet writing is also a discipline, a method of attaining quality, clear thinking.
For the incisive essayist and novelist Joan Didion, writing is actually part of the thought process. In a New York Review of Books essay, "Why I Write," she explains—"I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear." That clear vision, deep thinking, and ability to articulate is also valuable in business, especially considering the inescapable buzzwords, superficiality, and nonsense that can end up ruling the workday.
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos relies on writing to hold effective meetings. Before discussion even begins, senior executives read six-page narrative memos in a half-hour "study hall." Bezos told Charlie Rose in a 2012 interview, "When you have to write your ideas out in complete sentences and complete paragraphs, it forces a deeper clarity of thinking." Writing with a narrative structure rather than relying on messaging by numbers or bullet points also pushes people to think through problems within a fuller context. That deeper clarity is then wholly communicated to the team, in stark contrast to the bite-size pieces of information sprinkled throughout a PowerPoint in a traditional corporate meeting, which Bezos deems "easy for the presenter but difficult for the audience."
The habit of considering your audience is a key to effective communication, but it’s also a key talent to foster in employees. According to experimental psychologist Steven Pinker, "the process of writing . . . is an exercise in psychology." Good writing requires developing intuitive skills, the ability to get "inside the heads of other people so that you can respect their needs and their wants." And the value of exercising that emotional intelligence extends beyond the workplace to outside audiences and clients.
Effective communication at work always involves sharing accounts of what’s going on with others, so the concept of narrating your work isn’t exactly new. Still, the term’s popularization—often attributed to Dave Winer, the "father of blogging and RSS"—coincides with the rise of Twitter and alludes to how aspects of social media can enhance how we work.
Twitter initially asked its users "What are you doing?" A question, as Winer points out, that people at work ask everyday. As a manager of a distributed team at UserLand Software, Winer realized he needed visibility into what his team was doing in order to carry out his job. "I wanted to know where my people were, because if they were completing a project, I needed to be thinking about their next steps and how their deliverables fit in with other stuff that was coming online. And if they were late I needed to understand why."
Visibility paves the way to knowledge and progress, and it’s for this reason that Dion Hinchcliffe and Peter Kim, authors of Social Business by Design, believe that the future of work will be one of work narration. Hinchcliffe describes the vision:
The organization finally has visibility into what people are really working on, and it also enables the process to be open and participative . . . . You see what's going on in your company, in your department, or with your team all the time. You gather information that you need and you share the information that others need.
In place of status reports that are grumpily filled out mostly for the benefit of bosses, businesses can mobilize social sharing to create more transparency. For example, Shopify uses a Twitter-inspired system to share successes and crowdsource bonuses, which has improved collaboration and engagement. Narrating your work puts more power and participation into the hands of more people so you don’t have to rely on managers or information gatekeepers to move.
Conveying what’s getting done is an essential element of collaboration. Showing and telling others about your work opens more doors to support and learning from each other—and to do this well, good writing is vital. It’s one reason why a major team-building principle for the successful startup Zapier is hiring people who can write. Remote teams especially have a need for narrating their work because the information that would be floating around in an office is much harder to capture in a shared digital space.
When an organization prioritizes writing as an integral part of the job and promotes information sharing that’s not just one-way, it reveals the kind of work culture and power structure it really believes in. For Bezos, the reliance on writing shows that Amazon values sharp, insightful thinking and doesn’t suffer superficial fools. The work narration at Shopify shows its management philosophy of putting power in the hands of people with the most knowledge and getting out of the way.
Writing is a source of power. It certainly is for Didion, who explains, "In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind." When that kind of power is encouraged, the work environment isn’t one of secrecy, closed doors, and tight reins but of trust, transparency, and autonomy—and those are the conditions in which the people behind all the knowledge work will thrive.
—Janet Choi is the Chief Creative Officer at iDoneThis, the easiest progress-management tool around. She writes about productivity, creativity, and the way people work on the iDoneThis blog. Follow her on Twitter @lethargarian