Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from The Amazon Way: 14 Leadership Principles of the World’s Most Disruptive Company.
Leaders at Amazon are right — not always, but a lot. They have strong business judgment, and they spread that strong judgment to others through the utter clarity with which they define their goals and the metrics they use to measure success.
Make no mistake; there is a high degree of tolerance for failure at Amazon.com. A successful culture of innovation cannot exist without it. But what [CEO] Jeff Bezos cannot tolerate is someone making the same mistake over and over again, or failing for the wrong reasons.
Therefore, leaders at Amazon are expected to be right far more often than they are wrong. And when they are wrong — which of course will happen when a company continually pushes the envelope, as Amazon does — they are expected to learn from their mistakes, develop specific insights into the reasons for those mistakes, and share those insights with the rest of the company.
The resulting culture of learning, growth and accountability would be impossible without a high premium on clarity — clarity in the setting of goals, the communication of those goals throughout the organization, the establishment of metrics and the use of those metrics in gauging the success or failure of any initiative. Practices like “fudging the numbers,” “guesstimating,” “approximating” and “bending the rules,” as well as deadlines that aren’t real deadlines and targets that are purely aspirational rather than firm objectives — all of these are anathema at Amazon.com.
As I’ve mentioned, one of the reasons I’m able to write out a description of Amazon’s fourteen leadership secrets eight years after I left the company is the exceptionally clear way we articulated our goals and processes as a team and as an organization. Great leaders (like Jeff Bezos) develop a strong, clear framework; then they constantly apply that framework and articulate it accurately to their team. Get this right from the outset and you’ve got an excellent mechanism for scaling good decision-making from top to bottom.
Interestingly enough, as leaders at Amazon.com we were required to write out our ideas in a long, narrative form, which may seem contrary to the value of clarity. After all, don’t most business presentations involve a series of bullet-point PowerPoint slides that are supposed to boil down complex concepts into a handful of brief, vivid phrases?
But at Amazon, PowerPoint slides were not allowed. If you needed to explain a new feature or investment to the S-Team or Jeff himself, you began by writing a five to seven-page essay. After you finished that, you reviewed it and trimmed it down to maybe two pages of text for the executives. I can’t tell you how many of my weekends were consumed by this writing and editing process. Then, at the beginning of the meeting, you would pass out this narrative and sit quietly for ten minutes while everyone read it.
The two-page document was a useful tool for sharing a set of ideas with your colleagues. But even more important was the process of working on the plan or proposal, describing it in a narrative so that important nuances, principles and features were clear is a critical goal. As Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “It's not the plan, it's the planning that counts.”
Jeff believes that reliance on PowerPoint presentations dumbs down the conversation and does not push teams to think all the way through their topic. As he explained in a 2013 Charlie Rose interview, “When you have to write your ideas out in complete sentences and complete paragraphs, it forces a deeper clarity of thinking.” By contrast, in the typical PowerPoint show, “You get very little information, you get bullet points. This is easy for the presenter, but difficult for the audience.”
By contrast, written documents share more information without the need of additional explanation. When you have to be super specific, it further drives a culture of clarity, commitment and accountability.
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