- Kevin J. Delaney is the founder of Reset Work, a newsletter about work and leadership in the pandemic era and beyond.
- This post is part of Reset Work’s weekly business book briefing, republished with permission.
- In it, Delaney breaks down “Working Backwards,” a new book from Amazon alums Colin Bryar and Bill Carr.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
Much of the coverage of Jeff Bezos’s recent announcement that he plans to cede the CEO role at Amazon noted the retailer’s idiosyncratic corporate practices. Perhaps most famous of them is the fact that important meetings at Amazon begin with 20 minutes of silence. During that time, executives quietly read six-page narrative memos presenting the matter to be discussed.
Two Amazon alums, Colin Bryar and Bill Carr, just published a book called “Working Backwards” that walks in detail through how the company arrived at such singular practices. It offers advice on how you might adopt them at your own workplace (assuming, for example, you and your colleagues are game to spend long stretches reading in each other’s company.)
The book’s name comes from Amazon’s product development process, which involves working backwards from the desired customer experience to decide what to build.
Bryar worked at Amazon for 12 years as an executive, including two where he was Bezos’s technical advisor, effectively his chief of staff. (Bryar was preceded in that role by Andy Jassy, the incoming CEO.) Carr was at Amazon for 15 years and played a lead role in its digital media businesses, including Prime Video and Amazon Music.
At the core of Amazon’s approach are 14 leadership principles, first codified in 2005 as 10 principles. They start with “customer obsession” and taking ownership but also include quirky statements such as “leaders are right a lot” and “leaders do not believe their or their team’s body odor smells of perfume.” (That’s part of a principle about being self-critical.) Amazon job interviews are structured to probe whether the candidates demonstrate aptitude for each of the principles. You can read the full list on Amazon’s website.
Bryar and Carr cite a saying repeated at Amazon: “Good intentions don’t work. Mechanisms do.” (p. 17) The company has tried to systematize its practices – or mechanisms – amid its rapid growth. Here are some of the more interesting ones:
- The six-page memo. The company in 2004 banned PowerPoint, which until then had been the default for its managers. The reasoning was that six-page narrative memos were much better at conveying the nuances of a business than bullet-pointed slides, and that preparing the memos was valuable for forcing teams to refine their ideas. Amazon executives spend the first part of the meetings reading the memos, so everyone is focused on the matter and discussions pick up from there. Bryar and Carr include an example memo (p. 84) and suggestions for how to approach them. They relate that Bezos, among the most engrossed readers of the memos, said that he reads them assuming each sentence wrong until he can prove otherwise.
- Product design by press release. Often before they commit to building new products or services, Amazon managers write fake press releases describing them. The idea – central to the “working backwards” approach – is to clarify what the benefit to the customer will be, and magnify the focus on what will differentiate this product from anything else. The short press releases are followed by FAQ sections, which aim to address some of the most pointed questions facing the project. They write the press releases so early in coming up with an idea that most of the new products in the releases are never pursued.
- “Bar raisers” for hiring. Specially trained Amazon employees participate in the hiring process as “bar raisers,” providing a dispassionate view on whether the desired candidate is right for the company and wielding a (rarely exercised) veto over the final decision. The idea is to counterbalance many managers’ tendency to want to hire quickly so not to fall behind, and to ensure the process is thorough and structured properly. Bryar and Carr detail the structure, which includes assigning members of the hiring committee specific company principles to probe the candidate on, and written interview reports they’re required to complete.
- A focus on “controllable input metrics.” Managers traditionally focus on the output metrics of a company, like revenue and profit. But Amazon believes that managers should focus at least as much on the metrics for inputs they directly control – such as product selection, price, or convenience – that ultimately have the greatest impact on the outputs. Bryar and Carr spend a lot of time on how Amazon leadership uses such data, and acknowledge that there’s a lot of trial and error involved in determining the right input metrics to track.
- Vesting responsibility and control in a single project leader. The authors write that Bezos has been obsessed as the company has grown with minimizing the coordination and communication required of teams for them to move forward with a project, and ensuring that someone is totally focused on its success. One part of the approach was to have “two-pizza” teams – groups of 10 or fewer employees (the number that could be fed by two pizzas) with responsibility for specific product initiatives. That evolved over time into what it calls a “separable, single-threaded team” which has relative autonomy and works only on the specific feature. Amazon’s approach is similar to how Apple has a “directly responsible individual” charged with making sure a project gets done.
To be sure…
- This book is very careful to not veer into anything sharply critical, and completely omits any discussion of controversial topics like Amazon’s labor practices. As I was reading the section about how great its hiring process is, I kept thinking back to all of the stories about executive mis-hires in Brad Stone’s “The Everything Store” that weren’t acknowledged here. (Stone has another book on Bezos and Amazon due out in May, which will surely be more critical than “Working Backwards.”)
- The authors left Amazon in 2010 and 2014. They note in places that what they’re writing is based on conversations with other executives there since then. But presumably some of the practices described in the book have changed, or will eventually. Which makes this less of a static rule book, and more of a menu of ideas you could try in your own organization.
- The second section of the book describes how Amazon’s practices and leadership principles applied in the creation of the Kindle, Amazon Prime, Prime Video, and Amazon Web Services. As recounted, a lot of that history is familiar, and adds little to the understanding of the practices detailed in the first half. You could read just up to page 151 and take away most of the lessons of the book. For those wanting an even quicker read, Bryar and Carr nicely summarize the takeaways from the book in a two-page section beginning on page 261.
Memorable anecdotes and trivia:
- Bezos always wanted the company to underpromise and overdeliver in order to exceed customer expectations. Early on, the company said on its site that it was shipping books by first-class mail, when in fact it was generally sending shipments by faster priority mail and then telling customers in confirmation emails that they had gotten a complimentary upgrade. (p. 9)
- Amazon once had an elaborate system it called New Project Initiatives used to prioritize what teams hoped to pursue every quarter. The process was onerous and too frequently disheartening, as a faceless process effectively killed off some of the best ideas. (p. 61)
- In early 2004, Bezos and Bryar on a business flight read an essay titled “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within,” by information visualization specialist Edward Tufte, which crystallized their thinking about the need to ditch PowerPoint. “From now on your presentation software is Microsoft Word, not PowerPoint. Get used to it,” Tufte advised. (p. 81)
- Every two years, corporate executives including Bezos had to spend a few days as a customer-service agent. One day while Bezos was shadowing an agent, she took a call from a customer whose furniture had arrived damaged and knew which item it was because there had been recurring issues. That led Bezos, inspired by the Toyota idea of an Andon Cord, to add big red buttons to agents’ product screens that would let them freeze the sale of any item until a problem was resolved. (p. 146)
- Prior to the launch of the Kindle, Carr didn’t think Amazon should make its own e-reader hardware, because of the expense and its lack of experience doing so. But his boss used the press release technique, and said that the company needed to build or buy the hardware expertise required to make a reading device that was tightly integrated with its e-book store. (p. 178)
- Bezos sent senior Amazon executives an email in mid-October 2004 saying that the company needed to build and launch a shipping membership program by the end of the year. He gave the executives just 11 weeks during its busiest sales season to develop what would become Amazon Prime, announced only slightly behind his desired timeline in February 2005. (p. 188)
- “Our culture is four things: customer obsession instead of competitor obsession; willingness to think long term, with a longer investment horizon than most of our peers; eagerness to invent, which of course goes hand in hand with failure; and then, finally, taking professional pride in operational excellence.” – Bezos (p. x)
- “In a period of torrid headcount growth, founders and early employees often feel that they’re losing control of the company – it has become something different than what they set out to create. Looking back, they realize that the root cause of the problem can be traced to an ill-defined or absent hiring process. They were hiring scores of people who would change the company culture rather than those who would embody, reinforce, and add to it.” (p. 32)
- “I heard [Bezos] say many times that if we wanted Amazon to be a place where builders can build, we needed to eliminate communication, not encourage it… Jeff’s vision was that we needed to focus on loosely coupled interaction via machines through well-defined APIs rather than via humans through emails and meetings.” (p. 61)
- “The best way to fail at inventing something is by making it somebody’s part-time job.”- Amazon executive Dave Limp (p. 75)
- “Be stubborn on the vision but flexible on the details.” (p. 78)
- “We had freed ourselves of the quantitative demands of Excel, the visual seduction of PowerPoint, and the distracting effect of personal performance. The idea had to be in the writing.” (p. 104)
The bottom line is that “Working Backwards” is a thought-provoking read if you’re looking for ideas for how to work differently or improve how your team or your organization operate. For me, it was like reading Ray Dalio’s “Principles” – you might disagree with some portion of the authors’ views, but you can constructively engage with them. And it’s a book from which you can take away useful practices – like six-page memos, bar raisers, or fake press releases – even if you only read half of it.
All page numbers referenced above are for the hardcover edition.
Kevin J. Delaney is cofounder of Reset Work, a newsletter about managing yourself, your team, and your business in this moment and beyond. He was formerly a senior editor at The New York Times, founding editor in chief of Quartz, and managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Online. Sign up for Reset Work’s free newsletter.