Amazon’s small-team structure means new projects get greenlit quickly and it’s one of the secrets to the company’s success. Here’s how it works.

Jeff Bezos Amazon
Amazon has sometimes been called the “company of 100 CEOs,” because there are so many possible pathways to greenlighting a project.

The following is a book excerpt.

Amazon is famously organized into small “two-pizza” (8 -10 person) teams. This directly adds flexibility and agility. Small teams can move quickly.

Amazon’s two-pizza teams are agile, developed flexible inter-team structures, offer clarity or purpose, and are fast to innovate. They are also highly autonomous: the Prime Now team was able to launch its pilot on the iPhone first even though Amazon is generally an Android company. When the workload for a team becomes too big, Amazon may decide to break it into multiple smaller teams to keep their agility.

But teams mostly form because an employee sees an opportunity – a big one like Prime Now or one of the countless smaller ones. That employee is free to seek support and sponsorship inside or outside his own current team.

How that happens at Amazon seems quite different from most companies, which have clearly defined chains of command. For an idea to be implemented, it must move up the chain of command to the point where management is senior enough to act. If a decision involves financial resources or legal issues, those accountants and lawyers will need to be consulted. And all the way along, there are endless opportunities for vetoes. Often, one veto kills the project.

Behemoth Cover
Behemoth: Amazon Rising.

In contrast, Amazon offers “multiple paths to yes,” as Bezos puts it.

Individuals can go outside their team or even their division to find a team interested in an idea. Teams can find any number of senior managers to sponsor and support a project.

Amazon has sometimes been called the “company of 100 CEOs,” because there are so many possible pathways to greenlighting a project. It’s not that Amazon makes innovation easy. It’s never easy. But Amazon’s structure is designed to get to yes.

Think of these proto-teams – ideas without even a team yet – as the seeds for 1,000 flowers that many eventually bloom. Amazon is diligent about fertilizing the soil and watering them with resources, in the sure knowledge that many – perhaps most – will fail.

These proto-teams – often even a single employee – are watered with enough resources to initially test whether there is something worth pursuing; that may be time off task to work on the idea, some hours or days from other team members, possibly other resources.

This period is pre-pilot. As described above, innovators start by working backwards to develop a clear vision of what the project is for, who it will serve, and why specifically customers will benefit. As it comes into focus, and more evidence is added that the project is worth pursuing, it may attract more resources from inside and outside the original team. That might include part-time help from other areas like logistics or human resources or advertising.

At this stage, the project is adding resources with dotted lines from existing structures. An HR person may be helping to acquire talent, but they remain within their existing HR team. Further information resources are easily available because of Amazon’s previous decision to manage information flows via API; emerging teams can access information without needing permission.

Robin Gaster Headshot
Robin Gaster.

At some point, the project/team gets the greenlight to move into pilot production. That will require significantly more resources, and the creation of a more focused team. Neil Ackerman explains that when he was starting to build a team for his Small and Light Fulfillment project, he searched for the team members he would need through the internal Amazon directory, and reached out to them for “many many meetings for coffee” over weeks of effort. Of the seven people he eventually asked to join the new team, three accepted, and he hired four from outside.

As the project becomes more successful, its place in the overall Amazon hierarchy becomes more settled.

It is no longer a pilot on an experiment; it’s now a service within existing services. So Ackerman’s Small and Light project became embedded as a successful tool for addressing the needs of the Marketplace. Over time, it attracted further use from Amazon Retail, and it’s now a permanent service within the Amazon logistics network, reporting up through that chain of command, and funded through the standard OP1 mechanism. As projects solidify, teams become fully independent entities within the Amazon ecosystem. They have their own marketing, sales, engineering, and finance functions, so each product has its own profit-and-loss statement, and thus each has both autonomy and accountability.

So what’s different here, and what differences does it make?

The main difference is that Amazon’s internal environment is set up to encourage the constant formation of teams, and provides the critical early resources that let them flourish quickly. Management expects and even demands innovation, and the structure is set up to provide enough fertilizer at the earliest stages, sufficient support during the prototyping and testing phase, and enough clear pathways to final adoption. There are far fewer vetoes, and more widely distributed resources and pathways. And that matters. As Benedict Evans observes,

The structural advantage of them [teams], in Amazon at least (and in theory, at least) is that you can multiply them. You can add new product lines without adding new internal structure or direct reports, and you can add them without meetings and projects and process in the logistics and ecommerce platforms. You don’t (in theory) need to fly to Seattle and schedule a bunch of meetings to get people to implement support for launching makeup in Italy, or persuade anyone to add things to their roadmap. This means not so much that products on Amazon are commodities (this is obvious) but that product categories on Amazon are commodities. -Benedict Evans

Of course, this picture is somewhat idealized. Small teams also compete for resources and projects, so from another perspective Amazon has created a Darwinian environment in which teams compete vigorously (sometimes viciously) on behalf of their projects and initiatives. Not everything gets funded, so there are naturally winners and losers. This hyper-competitive environment is another way Amazon pushes teams to innovate.

One final note. Small teams are only possible because Amazon has, since its earliest days, required that all teams share information electronically not only with other Amazon teams, but with outsiders as well. This key requirement makes it possible for hundreds of teams to connect – otherwise they would drown in information overhead, the sheer time and resource cost of communicating by manual methods like email and messaging.

Excerpt from Behemoth – Amazon Rising: Power and Seduction in the Age of Amazon reprinted with permission by Dr. Robin Gaster.

Dr. Robin Gaster is the CEO of Incumetrics and a visiting scholar at George Washington University Institute for Public Policy. He is the author of Behemoth – Amazon Rising: Power and Seduction in the Age of Amazon.

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5 daily habits of business leaders on top of their game

business team talking
An important habit of a strong leader is to be present and transparent with their teams.

  • Sports entertainment firm founder Tanner Simkins says good leadership is key to running a business.
  • Not everyone can replicate leadership traits, but it’s easy to start implementing great leadership habits.
  • A great leader is proactive, communicative, and embraces the opportunity to learn to better themselves.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The best leaders get the most out of their teams, inspire their employees to constantly get better, and smoothly lead their businesses through difficult periods. The importance of good leadership, especially during periods of change or crisis, can’t be overestimated.

Employees who trust and respect their leader are much more likely to be committed, engaged, and happy in their jobs. Plus they’re more productive and less likely to leave.

The importance of being a great leader can be overwhelming for some in managerial and leadership roles. However, the good news is, as basketball coaching great Mike Krzyzewski says, “Leadership is an ever-evolving position.” Plus, while some leadership traits can be hard to replicate, leadership habits can be immediately implemented by anyone.

With that in mind, here are five habits of successful leaders to begin implementing today.

1. Focus on time management

Leaders have a long to-do list every day and it’s easy to get almost constantly diverted from the most important items on that list. Without good time management, leaders can find themselves constantly reacting to issues that arise and not spending enough time on the tasks that matter most.

To avoid this common problem, leaders need to be proactive about time management. Doing so will ensure that tasks don’t fall through the cracks, that you’re focused on the right priorities, that you’re modeling good habits, and that you’re meeting all commitments. While time management can be difficult, it is a habit that can be developed and internalized. Here are a few tips to help develop the habit of good time management.

  • Schedule your time the night before. Once the day starts, things can quickly get chaotic and it can be difficult to properly allocate time. Spend a few minutes every evening to prioritize and schedule the next day’s tasks.
  • Delegate whenever possible. Good time managers are able to determine which tasks require their attention and which tasks can be delegated. Delegation is essential for time management because it ensures that leaders are focused on the right tasks and strategically allocating their time.
  • Plan for focused periods of work time. Leaders are usually good multitaskers, as they’ve had to learn to juggle many different responsibilities. While multitasking is important, it’s not always a good thing. Difficult and demanding tasks require periods of focused concentration, so it’s important to schedule your time so that each task gets the focused attention it deserves.
  • Schedule the hardest tasks early in the day. It can be tempting to put off difficult projects as much as possible, but it’s best to schedule the most challenging things on your to-do list early in the day when you have the most energy and focus. Plus, getting these tasks done early ensures that they don’t serve as a distraction throughout the day.

2. Be present and transparent

One of the most important habits of strong leaders is being present, visible, and transparent with their teams. This often means simply walking around and checking in with employees. While it might seem like unproductive time, taking the time to be present with employees, in any way possible, is time well spent.

During these informal interactions, always be honest and as transparent as possible. This authenticity will build trust between you and your team. It also will lead to stronger relationships and healthy culture. Further, you’ll likely find that this time observing how your team and business runs will help you identify problems and opportunities.

3. Listen

Communication is regularly discussed when talking about great leaders. While communication is essential for great leadership, it’s particularly important that leaders are good listeners. The best leaders prioritize listening and ensure that they’re not just listening for content but also for context. Additionally, strong leaders listen without judgment and without trying to control the conversation.

Being a good, deep listener will not only build trust and respect but also ensures that you’re getting the information you need to make good decisions for your business.

4. Get to work early

One habit of great leaders that might seem insignificant is their commitment to getting to work early and being the first person (or one of the first people) in the office every day. Getting in early gives leaders time to organize their thoughts, handle a few mundane tasks, and respond to email before the busyness of the day begins. Additionally, it sets the tone for the team and lets them know that you’re present, committed, and working as hard as (or harder than) they are.

Being early to work is just one way that you can set the tone for your team and help build a healthy and productive culture. It’s worth noting that with so many teams working remotely now, this habit might not seem particularly important. However, even when working remotely, “getting to work early” will help to focus your day, ensure that you’re addressing any last minute changes to the day, and modeling good habits, no matter what the working situation.

5. Look for learning opportunities

The best leaders approach every day looking for something new to learn. They make learning a habit and always look for ways to gather new knowledge, information, and skills.

Learning can be formal, like participating in professional development or working with a mentor. However, it can also be informal. This includes talking to team members, asking probing questions, listening, taking notes, and observing. Throughout the course of each day, there are ample opportunities to learn. The best leaders seek out these opportunities and ensure that they’re always learning.

Great leaders get the most out of their teams and ensure that their businesses continue to grow and develop no matter what challenges they face. While being a strong leader is not easy, the good news is that there are some habits that anyone can adopt to be a better leader. Start with these five habits to become a better leader now.

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5 daily habits for growing your business and improving your leadership skills

office workers plexiglass video conference call
Leaders should listen and learn how their team members communicate and adapt to match their styles.

  • Becoming an effective leader starts with developing and committing to positive daily habits.
  • Regularly listening to and asking for feedback from your team is essential to the growth of your business.
  • Leaders should incorporate physical and mental self-care into their daily routines to improve their professional output.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

While working in the media industry, I taught myself how to code to build a platform that connects women and minorities to professional opportunities. I worked at my day job and then coded at night – night after night, week after week, month after month. The commitment to my purpose became a habit, which then provided the momentum to scale my company, Mogul, to what it is today.

I believe that what makes certain businesses struggle and others thrive is the difference between the daily commitments and small habits that leaders create in order to help others move toward their greatest potential. Here are five daily habits that will help your business thrive.

Commit to listening

Listening is a superpower. I can’t stress enough how important it is to develop your active listening abilities, especially when you lead a team of individuals. Everybody on your team is unique, and their communication preferences are as well. Some people like to be cheered on with positive affirmations. Others prefer straight talk and getting right down to the point.

As leaders, part of our job is to listen and learn how our team members communicate, and to adapt our communication style to match theirs (more on communication below). It’s our responsibility to listen, uncover what makes each individual tick, and elevate their passion that empowers them to produce inspired work.

Commit to communication

The way we speak to our team matters. Especially because you’re in a position of influence, your words hold more weight than others. Any sign of talking down to a team member can ultimately erode a working relationship – and it can happen fast. When providing feedback, it’s important always to be mindful of your messaging.

My suggestion is to first aim to validate. For example, we once had a situation where our team continued pushing back the delivery date for a project, so I decided to step in and provide support. Instead of just expressing frustration, I made sure to share what I did like and precisely why. I then offered my notes for edits and focused on framing everything in the positive. Our primary goal with the way we communicate is to lift our team, help them grow in their role, and support their career advancement.

Commit to learning

Taking time to deepen your expertise should be a mandatory practice. Information is ubiquitous, and it’s never been easier to further our education and develop a deeper understanding of our field. I’m continually reading about current events, industry trends, following other peers and thought-leaders, and finding ways to continue uncovering strategies that help me be a better leader.

Like many of us, I wish there were more hours in the day, so I schedule time once or twice a week specifically for learning and upskilling. If something doesn’t get on my calendar it doesn’t exist. I give myself a certain topic to focus on throughout the week, and I dedicate the scheduled time to focused learning.

Commit to systems

Now more than ever, speed wins. And the essential way to be more effective with your decision-making ability as a leader is to create flexible systems. The more you tangibly understand the mechanisms that make your business run, the better it allows you to iterate on your systems. From how you hire, share internal communication and deploy external messaging, to how you structure your entire organization, nearly everything within your business should be put into a system and continually optimized.

By having a process in place, you can better track and locate inefficiencies. Systems can empower you to think long-term more effectively because they stack on top of each other, which will then enable you to make more informed decisions. The best leaders I’ve known are the ones who continually commit to creating more efficient systems.

Commit to yourself

You can’t lead a team of people and grow a business if you don’t care for yourself. Forgive me for what may seem like stereotypical advice, but we all need to make sure we’re doing the foundational things well. Find your optimal amount of sleep, eat breakfast in the morning, mind your posture at your desk throughout the day, and take breaks for your physical and mental health. As often as I can, I stop scheduling meetings at a certain time of the day to help me end the workday at a reasonable hour and stave off burnout.

The best way I’ve found to keep my mental and physical health at the forefront of my mind is to schedule my day as detailed as possible. I even plan my short breaks to stretch or take a walk. I periodically put 20-minute breaks in my calendar and use them to unplug from work life and reconnect with real life.

The little commitments matter and the habits will compound over time. If you want to be an effective leader, it starts with leading yourself. So take care of yourself and live to work another day.

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