Working Backwards - Book Review

Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Inside Amazon

I know firsthand that we could all learn a thing or two from Amazon’s way of working and solving problems. It’s not perfect (and neither is Amazon). But the principles create a great foundation for any team or company to build on. And Amazon consistently out-innovates and outperforms most companies. So they’re clearly doing some things right.

I’ve worked for several former Amazon executives who have created Amazon-like cultures at other companies, so I was excited to read Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Inside Amazon.

The authors were part of Amazon through most of its growth, and were in charge of some of the highest profile initiatives, helping to launch things like Prime Music, Prime Video, Amazon Studios, and Amazon Associates.

Much of what they wrote about and the advice they gave jibes completely with my experience. If you haven’t had the chance to work at Amazon (I haven’t) or at a place that espouses these principles and practices (like I have), I can tell you they take them very seriously. And it is a serious shift from the way most companies work. But the value in shifting is immense.

Fortunately, you don’t have to be at Amazon to work in an Amazon way, which is what the book is primarily about (as well as some interesting stories from behind the scenes). Let me give you some highlights.

Ban PowerPoint, Start Writing

Most of us are probably familiar with this. In 2004, Jeff Bezos banned PowerPoint and required everyone to use written narratives. This included a 6-page narrative for business reviews as well as a future press release for strategic documents.

The reasoning is that writing is harder. It forces more thought and more clarity. You can bullshit a presentation, but it’s much harder to do that in a document. It also levels the playing field so that great speakers and presenters can’t talk their way around people, even if the ideas aren’t sound. It ultimately puts the focus on the ideas.

I remember when we started this practice at one of my organizations. It was tough for a lot of people. And it was strange to walk into silent rooms where everyone was reading narratives for 20 minutes and then debating.

But the change was incredible. I think everyone grew more in a short time than they had in years before, because the expectations were much higher. And the ideas became more and more refined as we debated them thoroughly as a group frequently, helping each other make our documents (and ideas) better.

I’ve written about this before, but writing out your ideas brings clarity to them. It helps you understand them and helps others understand them as well.

It’s a massive cultural change, and I’ve had varying success on my own pushing for a shift to writing over presentations. But if you can make the shift, it’s worth it.

Define Principles and Reiterate Them Frequently

The book discusses how quickly Amazon grew and the need to define core leadership principles in order to maintain the Amazon culture. But they not only discovered and defined them, but use and reiterate them frequently in everything they do.

Principles and vision should be the guide for everything. Without them, it’s difficult to make quick, decisive choices because teams and individuals don’t have any guides.

That is why Amazon established its principles, and why it’s critical to establish principles for your organization or team as well.

In one organization, we called them ‘tenets’. We defined them and used them to guide all our decisions. They were core to our work and our team. I’ve used the same idea in multiple teams and organizations. Because defining your core principles allows everyone to understand what you value most and allows them to make decisions independently and quickly. For example, if I know that we value the customer experience above everything, then when I’m faced with a tradeoff between shipping a feature quickly to meet a deadline or holding back to make a better customer experience, the choice is easy. That’s the value of tenets.

Single-Threaded Focus

We’ve probably all heard of Amazon’s famous “two-pizza teams”. Teams small enough to be fed by two pizzas. That idea is great, and easy to remember. But the thinking behind it has been updated to be “single-threaded focus”, which is actually much better. Small teams are great, but focused teams are better, regardless of the size. Sometimes teams need to be bigger (though smaller is generally better, especially in product development).

But teams and organizations need to be focused and autonomous. That’s the key. And Amazon has found that having a single leader who owns an initiative is much more effective than asking several part-time owners to drive something forward.

We’ve called this “a single throat to choke”. That’s tongue-in-cheek, but it works. To make things happen, someone has to be responsible. Whether that is a new feature or a new market or an entire business category. If someone isn’t responsible to make it happen, it won’t happen.

I’ve seen this firsthand as well. Without a leader responsible for driving a set of important initiatives forward, everything languished and was uncoordinated. Everyone worked as well as they could, but there was no person to pull it all together and drive it forward.

Input Metrics

Amazon focuses on input metrics, or metrics they can control - new product categories, page load, time to ship, etc. And let’s these drive the output metrics, or outcomes.

The authors don’t say it, but this has a very OKR feel to me. Understand what outcomes you want to drive (free cash flow for example) and then decide what inputs you can influence to drive that.

The steps for this include defining the goals, measuring, analyzing, improving, and controlling. And Amazon is serious about this in a way most other companies and cultures aren’t. In fact, I’ve never been anywhere more attuned to metrics than an Amazon-based culture.

This can be a real challenge. One of the hardest steps is identifying the right metrics and then getting the measurements in place. I’ve written about that this in my post about OKRs. But putting in the work to identify and measure is key to success. Because only then can you analyse and improve your metrics - both product and engineering metrics. Which should lead to important business metrics.

Raise the Bar Hiring

Hiring is an interesting topic that has come up in several books. Last month’s post from Empowered also touched on hiring. To create the best companies and cultures, it is the responsibility of managers to find and recruit the best people. It’s not just an HR thing.

And the process is important. Amazon has structured interviews (an important thing), uses written feedback to eliminate bias, and has someone who “raises the bar”. This person makes sure the process is followed, gets feedback from everyone, and can ultimately veto a candidate even if the hiring manager wants to hire. This ensures that everyone coming in is making Amazon better.

Focus on Long-Term

Amazon is a company focused on the long-term. This may be one of my favorite things about them. It’s not about short-term profit or short-term ideas. It’s about years. And they are willing to be misunderstood and place long-term bets. Too many companies won’t do that. They are looking to make the current fiscal year better. Or increase sales in the next quarter. That is antithetical to Amazon.

I wish more of that long-term thinking permeated other companies. Stop thinking about the next quarter or fiscal year. Start thinking about the next few years and what will be best for your users and customers.

Conclusion

I enjoyed the book Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Inside Amazon. I’ve practiced many of the principles and have seen this culture in action. It isn’t an easy change to make, but can be very worthwhile.

The great thing is that you don’t have to make every change either. You can start to use some of the principles like focusing on writing out ideas or establishing tenets for your team. And then expand from there.


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