Decoding Amazon’s Working Backwards Process [Book Review]

We all must have heard, read about Amazon’s working backwards principle. But beyond the headline, nothing much has been offered in terms of details.

How does Amazon’s working backwards process work? What makes an e-commerce company launch hardware products (like Kindle) or an infrastructural service (AWS) that has no relationship with the core business, yet goes on to become a market leader!  How does one explain Prime music and video – all in the name of building more consumer loyalty? What has Alexa got to do with e-commerce?

Most importantly, how does one institutionalize innovation and first-principle thinking across the board?

This is where the book Working Backwards (officially launching on Feb 18th) makes its mark!

Written by Amazon veterans, Colin Bryar and Bill Carr (they have 27 years of combined Amazon work experience), the book is the slowest read I have ever done – largely because there are tons of practical insights and perspectives hidden all over the book. You’d rather read this peacefully and absorb the core of probably the biggest innovation engine, than hurry through it.

Working Backwards is a guidebook that explains the ground-level practices that ensure the principles are translated into everyday action and flow through all aspects of the business. Working Backwards shows that the success of Amazon’s scale is not achieved by the genius of any single leader, but rather through commitment to, and execution of, a set of well-defined, rigorously executed principles and practices that anyone can replicate.

The book, Working Backwards walks you through the launch of some of the iconic Amazon products including Kindle, Amazon Prime, Amazon Echo and Alexa, and AWS (and of course, Fire Phone too).

The book does an excellent job of codifying Amazon’s process (right from the bar raiser hiring process to the PR/FAQ process, which is the core of product management principle I have been following for the last few months).

What’s the biggest takeaway from the book? In my opinion, it all boils down to how can one work with some of the smartest talents, yet ensure they all work ‘together’ – not by limiting the togetherness to an inspiring leader (Hello Steve Jobs), but a process that works across different units with different cost structure/business model (hardware, retail, software, media etc). And they all follow similar nomenclature (for instance, no PPTs allowed, use 6-pager docs) to ensure a coherent culture.

I am sharing a few nuggets from the book (some of my notes).

Why Narratives >>> Presentations

The reason writing a good 4 page memo is harder than “writing” a 20 page powerpoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what, and how things are related. Powerpoint-style presentations somehow give permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas.

How Jeff Bezos evaluates ideas (while reading the 6-pager documents):

..he assumes each sentence he reads is wrong until he can prove otherwise. He’s challenging the content of the sentence, not the motive of the writer. Jeff, by the way, was usually among the last to finish reading.

On PR / FAQ Process

A common question asked by executives when reviewing the product features in the PR is “so what?” If the press release doesn’t describe a product that is meaningfully better (faster, easier, cheaper) than what is already out there, or results in some stepwise change in customer experience, then it isn’t worth building.

On Input vs. Output Metrics

As founders, we are often focused on output metrics, and not on input metrics as much as we should. Here is some food for thought.

Before you can improve any system . . . you must understand how the inputs affect the outputs of the system. You must be able to change the inputs (and possibly the system) in order to achieve the desired results. This will require a sustained effort, constancy of purpose, and an environment where continual improvement is the operating philosophy.

The right input metrics get the entire organization focused on the things that matter most. Finding exactly the right one is an iterative process that needs to happen with every input metric.

Go ahead and read the book. This is a blueprint for leaders and is totally worth your time, if your life revolves around building products.

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