At 10 a.m. on a Monday, you’re called to a mandatory meeting at work. You’re told it will last an hour but have no idea what it’s about. During the coffee break, you’ll be trying a new work method. Your team leader has read a new book and wants to take the opportunity to experiment with your approach to meetings now that everyone is back in the office again after lockdown.
Everyone is suffering from Zoom fatigue, but few long backs to how things were: long sessions on everything and anything and the same old input from garrulous colleagues. Is it possible to do it another way?
The Monday morning meeting begins with everybody taking their usual seats. Like the prepandemic days, the table is adorned with a fruit basket, a few glasses and a couple of jugs of water. But there is one addition, a six-page document at every seat entitled “Things we should try to do differently in March 2022.”
Your team leader welcomes you with the announcement that the day’s meeting, and all other meetings in March, will begin with twenty minutes of silent reading followed by a discussion of what you have read. He asks you to put away your laptops and mobiles, and the silence is deafening.
The above scene depicts how meetings are held at Amazon, one of the largest companies in the world. Here in Sweden, this tech giant is perhaps mainly associated with poor working conditions in the warehouses, an unhealthy monopoly of the market, and founder Jeff Bezos’ questionable wealth and outlay on space travel.
Much can be said, and rightly so, about all of that, but what happens if we approach the company differently? Can we learn anything from their success story? Is Amazon doing anything fundamentally right?
For those curious enough to find out, there is a book entitled Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Inside Amazon (MacMillan 2021). It was written by two former high-ranking Amazon executives, Colin Bryar and Bill Carr.
They began at the company in the late 1990s and stayed 27 years. Up close, they witnessed explosive growth, technological innovation, and the creation of products and services such as Kindle, Amazon Prime and Amazon Web Services.
Despite having left the company, both authors are still very loyal. Symptomatically enough, the first part of the book is called “Being Amazonian” and takes up the principles and work processes developed by the company. This is followed by a shorter second part, “The Invention Machine at Work”, with four case studies contributing concretisation and in-depth analysis.
The book Working Backwards is taken from the company’s concept that products are best developed by working backwards from the desired customer experience.
The focus is on who uses it and how not what Amazon must do to get there. Before a new product enters the development stage, a press release is written with associated questions and answers.
The press release should be one page, and the questions and answers a maximum of five pages. A meeting cannot be held until the document is in place. As we saw above, it begins with everybody reading silently for twenty minutes.
A discussion then takes place as to whether the idea is developable, needs refining or should be rejected. Most ideas never make it past this stage.
The example shows that Amazon puts great emphasis on the written word. “Our presentation tool is Microsoft Word, not Powerpoint”, as Colin Bryar and Bill Carr put it.
The written word is considered a concentrated form of thinking and a distillery of ideas. Writing six pages of convincing text requires clear, balanced thinking.
There’s no time for old hobbyhorses or to side-track into irrelevant issues. Even things you consider important will be pushed aside. The complex format brings priorities and focuses to the fore.
Another reason for moving away from oral presentations and Powerpoints is that they reward skilled presenters. Reserved people or individuals lacking design skills don’t get a look in. But this doesn’t mean that experienced presenters have better ideas. They could, of course, but Amazon puts writing skills ahead of charismatic and entertaining presentations.
The working methods mentioned here were not in place in the 1990s, and they have emerged over time to meet the challenges faced by a fast-growing tech company.
The ambition has been to develop work processes so robust that they work with hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands or even millions of employees. A key to this is that the procedures must be simple to understand and follow.
When management at different levels is faced with making a choice, they need a set of guiding principles. There’s no way to ask Jeff Bezos what he thinks.
For my part, I find it fascinating that an innovation-driven company of this size chooses to work so analogously. Of course, the whole thing shouldn’t be exaggerated. Like other tech giants, Amazon is data-driven, and the information they store about customer behaviour is hard currency.
The six pages may very well contain graphs and numbers, but they are also subordinate to the narrative. The art of reading and writing is valued above all else.
Could Amazon’s process work in other worlds? What would happen to our meetings if we devoted a third of our time to silent reading? Would it enable us to stick with the subject and make better decisions?
Yes, perhaps it would. Why not dedicate a month this spring to put it to the test? It could be a while before an equally good opportunity arises for collective innovation and experimentation.
And, while we’re at it, perhaps an upgrade of the school libraries wouldn’t go amiss. Even future tech companies will need programmers and leaders who excel in reading and writing.