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21 Mar

Right-to-Left Thinking

“You don’t commit to a venue or a medium or a technique. You commit to a path and an impact. Broadway is a venue. Joy through movement is an art. When the venue doesn’t support your art, you can change it without changing your commitment to the journey.”

— Seth Godin

Author Robert Caro — famously known for his deeply researched biographies like The Power Broker and The Years of Lyndon Johnson — has the kind of writing process we could all learn from.

Now before we start, let me tell you that these books can take a decade for him to write. So, in a way, they're nothing short of mega-project and consequently require excellent project management.

And when you're embarking on a decade-long journey of research and writing, it is easy to get lost down rabbit holes. The way Robert avoids this is by first filling the box on the right.

He starts by asking himself,

“What is this book about? What is its point?”

He forces himself to “boil the book down to three paragraphs, or two, or one.”

These paragraphs outline the central idea or narrative of the book. And to get here, he might write and reject multiple drafts as he compares his drafts to his large library of research. It's a frustrating process.

But when he finally nails down the central narrative or theme of the book and encapsulates them within these few paragraphs, he pins them to the wall behind his desk, where it is literally impossible for him to lose sight of his goal.

And as the years go by and he gets entangled within the intricate webs of his research — at the risk of getting lost — this central narrative pinned on the wall acts as his guiding star. It serves as an anchor to ground his writing and prevent it from straying too much from the central narrative.

Caro constantly looks at his summary and compares it with what he is currently writing.

“Is this fitting in with those three paragraphs?”
“How is it fitting in?”
“What you wrote is good, but it’s not fitting in. So you have to throw it away or find a way to make it fit in.”

This is called thinking from right to left.

Or as Amazon would call it: Working Backwards.

As a founder and manager, I've always been inspired by how Amazon uses documents to shape its product development. I find it incredibly unique.

Here's how it works:

In line with Amazon's customer obsession, narrative documents are written by starting from the customer experience and working backward from that by writing a press release that literally announces the product as if it were ready to launch. The doc also covers FAQ anticipating the tough questions.

You put the goal right in the opening sentences of the press release, including things like total addressable market, per-unit economics, bill of materials, P&L, key dependencies, and technical feasibility. The total document — both PR and FAQ — should not exceed six pages in length.

Most of the time, if there isn’t a doc there isn’t a meeting.

And creating this document is quite the exercise! You write it with the understanding that every single sentence, assertion, or assumption that you include would be uncovered and interrogated by the people reading it.

“A good PR/FAQ is one in which the author has clearly considered and grappled with each of these issues, seeking truth and clarity on each.”

Ian McAllister, a former Amazon executive who wrote multiple PR/FAQs for Jeff Bezos calls it ‘Oprah-speak’.

“You know, Oprah would have someone on her show who would say something, and Oprah would turn to her audience and explain it in a very simple way that anyone can understand.”

The reason being that with simple and straightforward language, flaws can’t be hidden behind jargon, slogans, or technical terms. Thinking is laid bare. If a thought is fuzzy, ill-considered, or illogical, or if it is based on unsupported assumptions, careful readers will spot them.

Once submitted, your PR/FAQ is reviewed in a one-hour meeting with the relevant stakeholders present. Meetings start with reading. Amazon forbids PowerPoint presentations and all the usual tools of the corporate world, so copies of the PR/FAQ are handed around the table and everyone reads it, slowly and carefully, in silence. And depending on the length of the document, stakeholders read anywhere from ten minutes to half an hour.

If the meeting has a long document and many attendees, the meeting is scheduled for enough time to read and discuss. Reading the doc is part of the scheduled time.

When everyone has finished, the writer asks for general feedback. The most senior attendees tend to speak the last, to avoid influencing the others. Finally, the writer goes through the documents line by line, with anyone free to speak up at any time.

“This discussion of the details is the critical part of the meeting,” wrote Colin Bryar and Bill Carr, two former Amazon executives.

“People ask hard questions. They engage in intense debate and discussion of the key ideas and the way they are expressed.”

The writer of the PR/FAQ then takes the feedback into account, writes another draft, and brings it back to the group. The same process unfolds again.

And again.

And again.

Everything about the proposal is tested and strengthened through multiple iterations. And because it’s a participatory process with the relevant people deeply involved from the beginning, it ensures that the concept that finally emerges is seen with equal clarity in the minds of everyone — from the person proposing the project to the CEO. Everyone is on the same page from the start. And everyone starts with the goal in mind.

In general, thinking from right to left or working backwards is important for two main reasons.

When it comes to large projects, it is easy to

1. get lost in the complexities and details of the project, lose sight of the goal and stray away from it, and

2. indulge in scope-creep, where you keep on increasing the bucket list of features to be shipped, without taking a step back and assessing if those features really matter or if they're simply distractions that keep you from shipping the project at all.

Right-to-left thinking helps every stakeholder avoid these two traps and be fundamentally clear about what the project aims to achieve. This, in turn, guides their prioritization, constraints, and trade-offs.

To conclude:

Whenever you start a project, it is important for the project to have a spine: a central idea or deliverable along which all your efforts and energies are focused. Without having that spine that binds and employs every vector towards the same objective, it can be quite easy to get lost in the weeds and dissipate your energy over trivialities.

In the case of writing a book, this might mean having a central narrative or singular message you wish to convey to your readers.

In the case of a tech product, it might be focusing on the feature and the metrics it is supposed to move the needle on.

In the case of a building like the Guggenheim Museum, the objective could be to create an architectural marvel that would increase tourism in the state and boost its economy.

In the case of your career, it could be starting from thinking where you want to end up and then working backwards to figure out what you will need to do to get there.

In any case, the larger the project, the more it helps to think right to left; to start with the goal in mind.

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