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Good day, folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture Podcast. It’s my privileged today to sit down with John Rossman, the former Amazon executive and author of The Amazon Way. And the third edition of that book has just been released. Welcome. Thanks very much for taking the time to talk to us.
John Rossman: Great to be here today.
Shane Hastie: For those who haven’t come across the book, can you give us the 30 second precis or maybe two-minute precis?
Overview of The Amazon Way [01:20]
John Rossman: Absolutely. So this book, The Amazon Way: Amazon’s 14 Leadership Principles is really my story of being at Amazon and understanding the 14 leadership principles, but it’s always with an eye towards and what can you take from them to apply into your business, your culture. And the third addition, I’ve got several updated components. First, I’ve got a preface from Tom Alberg. Tom was on the board at Amazon for 23 years. He was one of the first investors in Amazon and to get his comments in here meant a lot to me. And I think he really emphasizes that these principles are practical and they should be considered for other companies because they really do create real common perspectives, which is really what your culture is.
I also added a new preface to the book in which I make a suggestion to Amazon. I added a couple of new appendixes and I rewrote a number of the chapters and just added in some fresh interviews and fresh perspectives. So it’s a nice addition, but these principles move slowly at Amazon and that’s why the book is fairly durable. Because principles are something that don’t change that often, right? They are deep held beliefs in consistency. And I think that’s one of the real secrets of Amazon is this common set of orientation in how we work, what we believe in, how we make decisions. Those are the things that really help Amazon still be a pretty nimble organization for being as large as they are.
Shane Hastie: So let’s just do a quick run through of the 14 principles, if we may. Number one, obsess over the customer. Isn’t that obvious?
Principle: Obsess over the customer[03:01]
John Rossman: Well, it is. I think a lot of companies would say that’s not obvious. We’re obsessed over the product or we’re obsessed over our profit. And like any of these things, it’s one thing to say it, it’s another thing to really live it. One of the techniques of the Amazon is to have a principle and then to have mechanisms. Like little practices on how you demonstrate or live or enact this principle and the descriptions on these principles are always interesting. And so the description for this starts with leaders, start with the customer and work backwards. Well, that’s really about problem solving. How do we develop our perspective on what value are we delivering to the customer? How do we solve the problem? How do we build a solution? They are very much a envision the future and work backwards organization. And I think that that practice really helps them think through their is much better to think broader in terms of who the customer is and really what job are you trying to get done for the customer?
And so while the headline customer obsession may be obvious, I don’t think the livability of it or the enactment of it is obvious. And the other thing I would point out that isn’t obvious about it is that there’s a big difference being customer obsessed versus being in touch with your customer or being customer focused. We purposefully chose a pungent word, a word that’s strong. Like you know when you’re around somebody who’s obsessed with something because they have a clear priority relative to the topic and they’re willing to spend time, money, resources, cycles on it that oftentimes feels irresponsible to others. And that’s exactly how Amazon wants to be understood relative to the customer.
Shane Hastie: So not so obvious.
John Rossman: Not so obviously.
Shane Hastie: Take ownership of results.
Principle: Take ownership of results[04:57]
John Rossman: Yeah. The principle is ownership, and it really is about acting like an owner. And so there’s really two components to it. One is about having a long term perspective and never sacrificing long term results for short-term results. So it’s about not taking shortcuts and not doing things that are risky, even though they may have a short-term boost. And then the other is about that, although you have a job and a description don’t ever let that be a limiter in terms of what you do or how you act. Like nothing is below a leader at Amazon because that’s the way an owner acts, right? And you know you’re around an owner when they’re willing to be the janitor, they’re willing to be the chef, they’re willing to be the HR person, they’re willing to be the sales person. An owner is willing to do any job in order to win. And that’s what Amazon’s trying to get across with that leadership principle.
Shane Hastie: Invent and simplify.
Principle: Invent and simplify [05:55]
John Rossman: With customer obsession is probably the most famous one at Amazon. And what I think is interesting about this leadership principle is the and simplify piece of it, right? You might have thought of that it’s just invention. Like that sounds awfully big, awfully important, awfully hard to do, but it’s the and simplify that I think is interesting as part of that. Because what we learned was that in order to truly scale a business, a capability, a function, like whatever it is, making something as simple as possible was the first and hardest part of really being able to scale things. And that means both things that are simple and obvious to the customer and to the user, but all also making things as simple and consistent to use internally also. And so I think that that leadership principle, the big secret in it is the and simplify piece of that leadership principle.
Shane Hastie: Yeah because it’s so easy to make things complicated.
John Rossman: And inconsistent. And that’s part of the secret of simplified is making things very consistent and obvious. Which if you’re an engineer, like that’s a tough engineering job to do.
Shane Hastie: Leaders are right, a lot.
Principle: Leaders are right, a lot [07:07]
John Rossman: This is all about having strong judgment and good instincts. But the little wrinkle in it is it talks about seeking diverse perspectives and working to disconfirm your beliefs. And what’s the biggest risk to an expert or a team of experts is that they live in an echo chamber and they don’t get fed in disconfirming points of view. And so what this leadership principle encourages you to do is to welcome in diverse perspectives. It doesn’t say and agree with them, right? It just says welcome them in so that you’re always challenging your point of view. And that helps you keep an eye towards the next horizon of whether it’s a belief, a capability, a business model, a geography, whatever it is, you’re learning about things. And that helps you do the rest of these things very well.
Shane Hastie: Hire and develop the best. But everyone wants that, don’t they?
Principle: Hire and develop the best [08:04]
John Rossman: Yeah, absolutely. And I think it’s really just making that explicit. And so probably one of the least controversial or maybe surprising ones there, it’s the mechanics behind this one that are interesting. And one of mechanics behind this is about a hiring process called the bar raiser. And the bar raiser is an independent person that participates in the interviewing loop. They aren’t part of the hiring organization that gives them a degree of independence so that they aren’t in a hurry. They aren’t pressured to make this decision. And the simple question that the bar raiser asks themselves is, does this person for this job category raise the bar? And Amazon always has an eye towards fungibility, creating a team and a workforce that isn’t just capable of doing today’s job. They’re capable of doing tomorrow’s job. So to do that, you always have to be keeping an eye, not just on being able to do this job, but can they do a broader range of things and raise the bar in that job category.
Shane Hastie: Insist on the highest standards.
Principle: Insist on the highest standards [09:12]
John Rossman: Yeah. So I think probably the hardest leadership principle to use wisely. It’s easy to use this principle unwisely, the hardest one to use it wisely. Because the competing factor of having high standards is moving fast. And that’s why these leadership principles aren’t easy either individually, but especially as a set because they’re sometimes conflicting. So sometimes having high standards slows things down or doesn’t encourage people to be learning as quickly by an agile process, whatever. So this leadership principle really has to be done with an eye towards what’s the circumstance and what is the correct high bar to have for the circumstance? And then insisting that you have a high bar. And especially in the operational world when you’re running things, this is really done by metrics, SLAs, service level agreements, and monitoring to ensure a high degree of operational suitability.
Shane Hastie: And how do you keep that one safe so that people have the space to experiment as well?
John Rossman: Good question. I’ve seen this one used slightly incorrectly because they’ll be applying the wrong standard at the wrong instance and it’s the wrong thing to do. And that’s why I say like, it takes some wisdom, so it just takes good leadership in order to do that. Like you really have to understand the principle and what you’re trying to achieve with it and apply these with wisdom, which means apply the right lesson at the right moment.
Shane Hastie: Think big.
Principle: Think big. [10:51]
John Rossman: Probably the one that I struggled with the most honestly. And it’s all about that thinking small is a self-fulfilling prophecy and that leaders have to both create and communicate compelling and consistent vision. And that includes being able to look towards future trends, look around corners for customers. And I think that even as a very small company, when I was at Amazon, we had an eye towards accomplishing big things and you build and you design and you invest differently if you’re thinking big and not thinking small relative to your goals.
Shane Hastie: The bias for action. This one we hear a lot about, but what does it really mean?
Principle: Bias for action [11:32]
John Rossman: Yeah, it means speed in business matters. And in particular, the way that make decisions is a critical aspect of the speed in our business. And Amazon has a simple mechanism for this leadership principle and it’s about one way doors versus two way doors. And a one way door decision is one that can’t be reversed. So what do you have to do with that type of decision? You have to be thoughtful about it. You have to bring it to the middle, involve others, escalate it. The other type of decision is a two-way door decision. One that you can make, but you can come back from, it’s reversible. So what do you want to do on those? What do you want to be agile, right? You want to create a test. You want to test it. If it’s the wrong thing, you reverse it. But the natural inclination is people want to shift the risk to others.
They want to make it safe for themselves. And so they slow things down. They make what should be a set of two way door decisions into one bigger, one way door decision. And so good operators with this leadership principal are able to figure out how to take a situation and take it from feeling like it’s a big one way door commitment to, oh, actually we can break it down into multiple tests, which are really two way door decisions.
Shane Hastie: Lovely metaphor, the one way versus two way door decisions. Practice frugality.
Principle: Practice frugality [12:52]
John Rossman: Yeah. So when I was at Amazon, like we really meant frugality. You know, we had scarce resources and we had to be very thoughtful about using them. That’s obviously not the Amazon of today, but they do think about frugality in terms of a constraint to help you design and scale things. Because a penny on millions of orders or billions of bites actually adds up in a company the size of Amazon. And so really this is a design constraint of understanding scale and how designing and operating and building things in a resourceful manner matters a lot in business.
Shane Hastie: Tell me about dive deep.
Principle: Dive deep [13:34]
John Rossman: It’s really about leaders being able to operate at all levels. So both at understanding when is the right time to abstract and operate at a higher level and when is the right time to be able to dive deep and operate at low levels? And the thing I can tell you is bar none, I’ve worked across a of organizations, I’m an advisor today so I get to see a lot of organizations. Nobody has an expectation about leaders diving deep like Amazon does. But the question is, well, how do you do that? Right? And it really comes through instrumentation monitoring metrics, SLAs, understanding where do you need to go to pay attention so that you’re problem solving, getting to root cause, doing the correction of error, all of those things. And so Amazon expects senior leaders to understand the details of their business and the way you do that is through really artful and committed measurement.
Shane Hastie: Knowing when, that’s a hard one though.
John Rossman: It is but what you’re looking for is a variation. It’s the variations that tell you, oh, there’s something different going on here. And so that’s the trigger for the when is when something’s starting to degrade, you have a variance of some type. You have an anomaly, that’s the trigger for when and when you need to dive deep.
Shane Hastie: Have backbone, disagree and commit.
Principle: Have backbone, disagree and commit. [15:00]
John Rossman: This is a nice compliment to having a bias for action. And so once you’ve had a vigorous debate led with customer obsession and data, this leadership principle encourages teams to make a deliberate decision. And whether you agreed with it or not, you wholeheartedly buy into it and work to make it successful. But the nice thing is if you’ve made more decisions, two way door decisions, so lower risk decisions, you know that if it happens to be the wrong decision or the wrong variation of a decision, well, we’re going to test and adjust relative to this, right? We’re going to be agile. So that’s an example of a nice compliment between these leadership principles. But this really is about decision making rights, respecting decision making rights and not being passive aggressive. Not shaking your head, yes, I understand, but actually not helping out something to be successful. It’s the and commit piece of this leadership principle that is important that it’s your obligation to wholeheartedly try to make something successful.
Shane Hastie: Deliver results.
Principle: Deliver results. [16:07]
John Rossman: This is the 14th leadership principle. I don’t think it’s any accident that the first one is customer obsession, the last one is deliver results. And this is really about that leaders have to deliver results, but the unique twist or thing that Amazon encourages with this leadership principles is focusing on your inputs more, defining what your input goals are. The things your in control of that you’re going to accomplish in order to lead to the desired result, that you may be less in control of. But what happens in most organizations is you spend a lot more time focusing on the targeted growth number, the targeted revenue number, the targeted adoption number, whatever it is. But you don’t spend as much time defining, well, what are the inputs we’re going to do in order to accomplish that end goal? And so what Amazon does extremely well is take the time and debate and write out what are we hoping to accomplish and what are the controllable inputs that I’m more in control of in order to get our intended end result.
Shane Hastie: These are really solid principles.
John Rossman: It’s not like do the right thing or something like that. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s open for a lot of interpretation, right? It takes a lot of the interpretation of typical value statements or vision statements or other principles. It takes a lot the guesswork out of well, what does that really mean and how do I use it in this meeting for hiring this person, for making this decision? It really takes the guesswork out of it.
Shane Hastie: And they sit across all of the decision making is what I’m hearing here.
These principles guide decision making [17:50]
John Rossman: These principles, I think more than anything define the culture of Amazon. And so it’s not one person’s job to use the principles in a meeting, it’s everybody’s job to know and try to live up to these principles. Knowing that you’ll never do it successfully, completely, but if you’re a little bit better because of these principles, we’ve accomplished a lot.
Shane Hastie: You mentioned you’re an advisor to other organizations today. What are the toughest things that people struggle with when you come along and say, well, here is a set of principles. We should be able to use this.
John Rossman: Well, A, I don’t recommend that we just use Amazon’s principles at all. In fact, one of the new appendixes in the book is about developing your own leadership principles and an iterative approach relative to building those leadership principles. And I think the exercise of doing that is a big piece of the value of having the principles. But the hardest thing, when I work with teams, I typically work on strategies and big endeavors and big growth plans that they want to accomplish. And it’s about communication and clarity of what the concept is? How do we think it works? What are the true killer features of whatever business model or product or service that we want to go to market with? And really getting to simple and complete communication relative to that. And that to me is we think we have a shared understanding that we’re communicating on something, but what you find is you’ve got a slightly different version. You’re slightly flying past each other, and it’s hard to build things or to operate things or to do something new when you’re not quite building towards the same set of plans, the same definition.
Amazon has a real peculiar approach relative to helping that not happen. And they have this culture of writing and they don’t encourage, they mandate teams right out in the form, they call it a six page narrative, like what the concept is or what they’re proposing to do. You write a future press release, you write a set of FAQs or frequently asked questions. You figure out real fast and cheap ways to prototype things so that you can envision them better. And all of that work is done upfront before we commit to doing something and that helps everybody make better decisions. Are we going to do it? Yes or no? Once we decide we’re going to do it. Because these are written, they can be shared with others so that they get the benefit of all this exacting understanding of what it is we’re trying to do. Writing things out is a real superpower that people can develop. I know for a fact, people become better writers and more importantly, better thinkers when you’re writing out complete sentences, complete paragraphs, complete papers on a topic.
Shane Hastie: That sounds like a very concrete piece of advice. Thinking of the InfoQ audience, technical leaders, technical influencers, taking some of these ideas into their environment, their team. So you’ve told us about the write stuff down and get better at writing down. What else? What other advice would you give somebody in that technical space?
Advice for technologists [21:05]
John Rossman: I think the measurement aspect of how you measure in a balanced, deep, proactive customer oriented way, and then is important, how you take those we’ll call them metrics. There are lots of things, but metrics in general that instrumentation and how do you take action on it, right? How do you make that information you now have create value? Will you create value out of it by getting together, deciding, well, what’s the root cause? What insight am I taking from this? And what do we do relative to it? So I always talk about, you have to make metrics a verb, right? Metrics aren’t a noun, metrics are verb. That’s how you create value. And I always see the opportunity for creating culture in a deeper sense of ownership and action by evaluating the metrics and how we use our metrics and figuring out how to do a better job at that.
And then probably the last one that is a fairly common, fairly consistent piece of recommendation is about customer centricity. And to what degree do we really want our organization to be deeply aware and deeply committed to the customer? And what that unpacks is that we don’t all understand who the customer is. We don’t really know what customer segment or what customer persona we think is our winning customer segment, the one that we most want to serve, and we don’t prioritize or orientate our investments, our operations towards really serving that particular customer. And so customer centricity again, a buzzword, but if you unpack it and figure out well, what’s it really mean to us? And how do we be enacted throughout our organization can be a tremendous springboard towards accountability, speed and innovation in an organization.
Shane Hastie: John, thank you very much, indeed. Some really concrete, actionable advice here. If people want to continue the conversation, where do they find you? Where do they find the book?
John Rossman: You can find the book at Amazon. It’s available in paperback, Kindle or Audible versions and the audible versions available in early August. You can find me at my blog, which is rossmanpartners.com or LinkedIn is also real easy way to get hold of me so John Rossman.
Shane Hastie: Thank you so much.
John Rossman: Great to be here. Thanks, Shane
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