Amazon Is Not Too Big To Fail And Neither Are You

<Reproduced with kind permission from Forbes>

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Self-awareness or sensationalism?

It’s not the first time he says it but last week Jeff Bezos has reiterated that he is convinced Amazon can and indeed will, fail.

“One day, Amazon will fail,” he said, “…we have to delay that day for as long as possible”. Framed this way, this is no longer a case of “IF” but of “WHEN”.

The metrics that show how the company founded in 1994 is now perhaps the best example of success in growing with a purpose and making money while at it, are impossible to doubt. Amazon is winning today by any measurement, its ascension the stuff of dreams not only for budding entrepreneurs but many of its competitors.

Why does it need to then concern itself with this impending death talk?

The answer lies in the myriad of examples of recent history to show that not thinking under those terms is a mortal sin. Giants that thought their size is protection enough against any type of failure have perished in many industries, most succumbing to the pressure of new consumer demands and digitization.

One could fill books with quotes from press releases and shareholder meetings from CEOs that spoke of their confidence in the future right before falling on their sword. Whatever you think of Bezos at the very least, he can always claim this monumental “I told you so” should he have prevented Amazon’s heralded demise. But how will he do so?

Amazon’s Knowledge, Passion, and Courage

Moving away from analyzing why big companies are afraid to look death straight into its hollow eyes we should instead look at what Amazon has put in place thanks to this self-awareness to prevent it.

Amazon values knowledge.

It doesn’t only meticulously insist on the highest caliber of people when bringing in each and every of its now 600,000 employees but encourages them to keep learning and demands continuous proof of critical thinking.

“Memos over PowerPoint”

It’s wildly reported but surprisingly un-mimicked in other boardrooms that Amazon prefers memos over PowerPoint. Every meeting starts with a period of silence where effectively everyone studies the problem at hand by reading a verbose, descriptive and hopefully succinctly all-encompassing memo about the topic at hand instead of looking at a series of slides with bullet points.

“Full sentences are harder to write. There is no way to write a six-page narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.” and having that clear thinking and presentation of the knowledge puts everyone on the same page from the start.

When it comes to passion it’s undeniable that Bezos thinks Amazon needs to have it as a sine-qua-non condition of success.

“Obsess over Customers”  

Reminding his employees that they have more in the way of a higher purpose than their tech giants competitors is a Bezos trademark.

“We have a good story to tell – we Improve the lives of consumers”. He bundles that with the need to elevate the concern for the consumer to obsession level as a basic survival technique and every executive in a large corporation around the world would do well to truly take that message to heart past the mere “customer centricity” empty promises to shareholders.

“There is no work-life balance”

“It’s not a balance, it’s a circle” he argued bemoaning that the idea of balance is debilitating because it involves a strict demarcation that shouldn’t be there. Going against the school of thought that advocates that employees must protect the sanctity of some extreme imaginary boundaries between work and life, what Bezos is advocating is not a state of perpetual work and no relaxation as his critics would like to claim but instead a blend between the two that brings true contentment to a passionate employee.

Finally, let’s look at how Amazon values Courage

“Every day at Amazon is Day 1”

What time in a company’s life better encompasses both enthusiasm and immeasurable courage than the day it starts? Bezos is so insistent that “Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance and painful decline. Followed by death” that he does all he can to remind his people to stay in the mental space of Day 1 and even went as far as to rename the building on campus where he works “Day 1” and reportedly when he changed buildings he had the name follow.

It would behoove executives of large organizations to even imagine “day 1” of their company’s life and role play reliving it by vividly and regularly imagining what it would be like to start from scratch – what grit and bravery it would require.


“Disagree and Commit”

Having the courage to make decisions is the cornerstone of innovation and the foundation of speed for companies that want to keep moving ahead.

At Amazon, the focus is intentionally shifted from how correct a decision is,  to how fast it can be achieved and so velocity becomes a key success indicator that is handsomely rewarded.

“If you’re good at course correcting, being wrong may be less costly thank you think whereas being slow is going to be expensive for sure,” Bezos writes in support of the speed demand.

Nothing better signals to employees that there is enough trust invested in them and enough Google-coined workplace “psychological safety” than the expectation of decisions being achieved with speed and in the absence of all the data that would have removed risk.

Decisions are seen as being either “Type 1 – non-reversible” or “Type 2 – reversible” and a balance between the two is encouraged with velocity still being praised in lieu of proportion with passionate debate highly encouraged but cut-off points in the decision making process are encouraged early. It just means “Look, we disagree on this, but will you gamble with me on it?” asking everyone to be brave and invested.

Having the knowledge to frame a problem with considered, literate wording, the need to continuously and incessantly think of the consumers and ways to make their lives better and do so as if you’re just starting out, with the passion of a start-up founder and the courage of a rapid decision maker is what will delay Amazon’s death not its balance sheet and we can seek to stay alive by religiously applying their lessons in winning.

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