These two tech visionaries share a lot in common. They’re both known as extremely innovative thinkers. They’re both trying to change the world, one by altering the way people buy products and the other by convincing consumers to drive electric automobiles. And then there’s the fact they’re in a friendly competition to, you know, rule outer space.
That’s partly why I found two particular communiqués published last week very interesting.
One was Jeff Bezos’s annual letter to shareholders, which detailed four elements to the company’s notoriously high standards, which Bezos credits as a major key to Amazon’s success.
And then there was an extraordinary email from Elon Musk to Tesla employees, outlining (among other things) what was modestly referred to as “a few productivity recommendations”–and in reality was a brilliant collection of some of the worst problems in business today, and suggestions for how to fix them.
I’ve collected the best of both missives below for easy reference:
First, Bezos’s advice for achieving high standards:
High standards are teachable.
“People are pretty good at learning high standards simply through exposure,” writes Bezos. “High standards are contagious. Bring a new person onto a high standards team, and they’ll quickly adapt. The opposite is also true. If low standards prevail, those too will quickly spread.”
High standards are domain specific.
“If you have high standards in one area, do you automatically have high standards elsewhere?” Bezos asks. “I believe high standards are domain specific, and that you have to learn high standards separately in every arena of interest.”
“Understanding this point is important because it keeps you humble,” Bezos continues. “You can consider yourself a person of high standards in general and still have debilitating blind spots.”
High standards must be recognized.
How do you achieve high standards in a specific domain? “First, you have to be able to recognize what good looks like in that domain,” answers Bezos.
Bezos goes on to speak about Amazon’s practice of starting meetings with silent reading of “narratively structured six-page memos,” which he describes as a kind of “study hall.” But not all of these memos are created equal.
“It would be extremely hard to write down the detailed requirements that make up a great memo,” states Bezos. “Nevertheless, I find that much of the time, readers react to great memos very similarly. They know it when they see it. The standard is there, and it is real, even if it’s not easily describable.”
High standards require realistic expectations. (It’s all about “scope.”)
Bezos says you must also have realistic expectations for the scope of a task or project: how much effort it takes to achieve a great result.
“Unrealistic beliefs on scope–often hidden and undiscussed–kill high standards,” concludes Bezos. “To achieve high standards yourself or as part of a team, you need to form and proactively communicate realistic beliefs about how hard something is going to be.”
“Often, when a memo isn’t great, it’s not the writer’s inability to recognize the high standard,” he says, “but instead a wrong expectation on scope: they mistakenly believe a high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more! …The great memos are written and re-written, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind. They simply can’t be done in a day or two.”
Skill is overrated.
“How about skill?” asks Bezos. “Surely to write a world class memo, you have to be an extremely skilled writer?… In my view, not so much, at least not for the individual in the context of teams. The football coach doesn’t need to be able to throw, and a film director doesn’t need to be able to act. But they both do need to recognize high standards for those things and teach realistic expectations on scope.”
Now, for Musk’s advice on productivity:
“Please get rid of all large meetings, unless you’re certain they are providing value to the whole audience, in which case keep them very short.
“Also get rid of frequent meetings, unless you are dealing with an extremely urgent matter. Meeting frequency should drop rapidly once the urgent matter is resolved.
“Walk out of a meeting or drop off a call as soon as it is obvious you aren’t adding value. It is not rude to leave, it is rude to make someone stay and waste their time.”
“Don’t use acronyms or nonsense words for objects, software, or processes at Tesla. In general, anything that requires an explanation inhibits communication. We don’t want people to have to memorize a glossary just to function at Tesla.”
On internal communication.
“Communication should travel via the shortest path necessary to get the job done, not through the ‘chain of command.’ Any manager who attempts to enforce chain of command communication will soon find themselves working elsewhere.
“A major source of issues is poor communication between depts. The way to solve this is to allow free flow of information between all levels. If, in order to get something done between depts, an individual contributor has to talk to their manager, who talks to a director, who talks to a VP, who talks to another VP, who talks to a director, who talks to a manager, who talks to someone doing the actual work, then super dumb things will happen. It must be OK for people to talk directly and just make the right thing happen.”
On using common sense over sticking to the rules.
“In general, always pick common sense as your guide. If following a ‘company rule’ is obviously ridiculous in a particular situation, such that it would make for a great Dilbert
cartoon, then the rule should change.”
There they are. A collection of very smart, time-tested, and emotionally intelligent best practices that can help anyone running a business, leading a team, or simply trying to improve.
Apply just one of these suggestions to do better work. Master all of them and get ready to crush it.
Originally published at www.inc.com