Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Inside Amazon
By Colin Bryar and Bill Carr
St. Martin’s Press, 304 pages
“You, too, can build a business behemoth – just like Jeff Bezos – by following the proven method of Working Backwards!”
Colin Bryar and Bill Carr don’t come right out and make that promise, but their book Working Backwards openly invites you to adopt Amazon’s business methods. They both left Amazon years ago, but “can’t imagine doing business without (these principles).” Given their success, you can understand their enthusiasm – and perhaps your own curiosity about what made Amazon so successful.
Working Backwards: Book Summary
The first half of the book, “Being Amazonian,” lists the elements of their corporate culture: leadership principles, hiring process, organizational design, prose narratives vs. PowerPoint, consumer focus, and managing inputs vs. outputs. The second half of the book tells stories of how these principles led to successful product launches: Kindle, Amazon Prime, Prime Video and AWS.
Despite how neatly the book summarizes all of the lessons, there’s a real-life messiness to the narrative because Amazon admits failures on the road to success, and the authors are honest about those journeys.
This review focuses on two elements of their corporate culture, communication in prose, and the consumer focus.
Communicating: Narratives and the Six-Pager
My whole reason for reading the book in the first place was a sense of vindication about the superiority of memo-writing, especially over PowerPoint.
You may have heard that Amazon banned PowerPoint in favor of six-page memos, or “narratives” that present the meeting material in one cogent, organized document. The authors describe how the company realized PowerPoint may enable a great presentation but it rarely catalyzed insightful discussion. In a memo to employees, Bezos said “a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what, and how things are related.” PowerPoint, he added, “gives permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas.” Hear, hear!
How this works in practice: there is “an eerie silence at the beginning of Amazon meetings” while those assembled take 20 minutes to read the memo. (Don’t you love the idea of not having to do the homework before showing up at the meeting?) The authors describe the company’s reaction to the PowerPoint ban, and difficulty in changing to the six-page memo, but they stuck to it and now it’s enshrined in this book as a principle. They even wrote, within the book, a six-page memo about how to write six-page memos.
Working Backwards: Start with the Desired Customer Experience
Every marketing thought leader, guru, Twitterati, and conference speaker has always spouted some version of the wisdom that innovation must start with the desired customer experience. In this book you can read about how to do it vs. just hearing yet another sermon about it. PR pros will delight at the idea that new product innovation at Amazon begins with the writing of a press release, a document they call PR/FAQ. This is akin to writing a new product concept for BASES forecasting, but the example they give on page 109 starts with an amazingly clear first paragraph that’s better than most new product concepts I’ve seen in my career. Just like the six-page memo, this press release with FAQs focuses the team’s thinking.
The rest of the chapter describes in Amazonian terms how they think through the market opportunity, source of volume, economics, P&L, external partners, and feasibility hurdles. You will nod your head at all of these steps, but the news here is how, having started with the customer experience in mind, they never lose sight of it amidst the numbers and analysis.
Something from an earlier chapter explains how Amazon organizes for innovation. You’ve probably heard of Amazon’s “two-pizza rule,” referring to the number of people who can be fed by two pizzas. Often described as a limit on the number of people in a meeting, it’s actually the number of people allowed on a product development team. The authors explain that they tried this concept in other functional areas but it only proved necessary for speedier product development.
Yes, I recommend this book
A friend once observed that most business books can be written as 14 PowerPoint slides, i.e., most business books are not as analytical and insightful as 300 pages would suggest. That’s not the case here. After one of the most serviceable book introductions I’ve ever read, each chapter reads quickly and clearly. All that practice writing six-page memos instead of PowerPoint decks obviously helped.
Read more: Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone To Take Action
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