2014's #9 Most Read: What is it like to work at Amazon?

In an excerpt from his new book, a former high-level Amazon employee reveals what it takes to hack it under the watchful eye of Jeff Bezos.
Crosscut archive image.

The Amazon Way book cover.

In an excerpt from his new book, a former high-level Amazon employee reveals what it takes to hack it under the watchful eye of Jeff Bezos.

Editor's Note: As the year ends, we are counting down Crosscut's most read stories of 2014. The following article, No. 9 among the most read, is an excerpt from The Amazon Way: 14 Leadership Principles of the World’s Most Disruptive Companywhich we originally published on June 25. 

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.

Jeff also believes that successful leaders, when presented with new evidence and data, are able to adapt their perspective.  Accordingly, he looks for people who are constantly revising their understanding and circling back on problems they thought they’d already solved. He also looks for leaders who can maintain a remarkably granular understanding of their businesses through metrics, intensity, and great program execution. (It’s a principle I will further explore in Chapter 12, “Dive Deep.”)

He believes that his system of corporate communication via written-out narratives will develop ideas much more effectively, deeply and quickly than oversimplified bullet points and pie charts.

The Future Press Release

The style and format of Amazon.com press releases offers another excellent example of the narrative as a forcing function. Written as a short, simple, clear, digestible narrative, the Amazon press release creates very little wiggle room and holds the highlighted team’s feet to the fire by introducing specific parameters and deadlines that are expected to be met.

So useful is this technique that an Amazon product launch almost always begins with what we used to call a future press release — an announcement of the product written before its development even began. Crafting the future press release forced us to articulate for ourselves what would be newsworthy about the product at the very end of the development process.

This is a great way to define clear and lofty goals, requirements and objectives, and to build broad understanding from the start of a program or enterprise change. Any time your organization is beginning to undertake a critical enterprise or competitive endeavor— launching a new product, undergoing a transformation or entering a new market — writing a future press release is a great technique.  Follow these rules to make them effective: 

  • Write the release as if you are writing at some future point in time where success has been achieved and realized. For example, when looking forward to the introduction of a new product, writing a press release as if at the day of product launch is good, but even better is a date sometime after launch, where true success can be discussed.
  • Discuss why the initiative is important to customers or other key stakeholders. How did the customer experience improve? What benefits have customers received?  Then discuss other reasons why it was important.
  • Set audacious, clear, and measurable goals, including financial results, operating objectives and market share.
  • Outline the principles used that led to success. This is the trickiest and most important step. Describe the hard things accomplished, the important decisions along the way, and the design principles that led to success.

The future press release is a type of forcing function. It paints a clear vision to galvanize understanding and commitment. Once it has been reviewed and approved, teams have a difficult time backing out of the promises it implies. As the project continues, a leader can refer to the press release and use it to remind and hold teams accountable.

If you want to increase your chances of achieving your goals when launching any important initiative, make sure you define and explain those goals with utter clarity from the very beginning. The future press release is a useful tool for making that happen.

Clarity and the Culture of Performance

There is no hiding from your failures in a culture that holds people accountable for their metrics. As Manfred Bluemel, a former senior market researcher at Amazon, once said, “If you can stand a barrage of questions, then you have picked the right metric. But you had better have your stuff together. The best number wins.”

Bluemel was referring to Amazon.com’s “gladiator culture.” Because the numbers provide crystal-clear, incontrovertible proof of which leaders are right a lot, Amazon.com operates to as close to a true meritocracy as possible. I cannot overstate how important this is for minimizing bureaucracy in the organization.

When Jeff purchased The Washington Post in 2013, a reporter at the paper interviewed me about this cultural phenomenon at Amazon.com. I explained how key judgments were made during my years at the company: “It was not the title but rather who’s got the best idea. Who’s bringing the solution to the table? That’s what was most important.”

To be blunt, as an Amazon.com leader, you don’t get the chance to make a lot of mistakes. Screw up for long enough, or for the wrong reasons, and the island will simply vote you off.


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