In my lifetime there has always been one company that was held up as the paragon of all that is good and innovative in business. We were supposed to emulate that company. GM was first, followed by IBM, then by GE. Now it’s Amazon’s turn. If you’re seeking insight into what made Amazon successful so far, you’ll love Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Inside Amazon by Colin Bryar and Bill Carr. There are many examples and things you can try regardless of the business you’re in.
But this book is different from most books about what to copy from great companies. It tells you about the background of Amazon’s best practices. You’ll learn why Amazon adopted them and follow the sometimes-tedious process of development. You’ll discover why some lauded practices (e.g., two-pizza teams) have been superseded.
Working Backwards does not turn Jeff Bezos into an all-wise, infallible business saint either. That’s important because it allows you to appreciate the role teams can play in developing processes. It’s also evidence that you don’t need a Jeff Bezos to succeed.
Colin Bryar joined Amazon in 1998 and spent twelve years there. Most relevant for this book, for two years he was Jeff Bezos’ chief of staff. Bill Carr joined Amazon in 1999 and spent more than fifteen years there. He and his teams launched and managed the company’s global digital music and video businesses. The result is a true “view from inside.”
The book is divided into two parts. The first, “Being Amazonian,” is about foundational principles and practices and Amazon culture. Jeff Bezos described the culture this way.
“Our culture is four things: customer obsession instead of competitor obsession; willingness to think long term, with a longer investment horizon than most of our peers; eagerness to invent, which of course goes hand in hand with failure; and then, finally, taking professional pride in operational excellence.”
That’s basic, but not operational. This section also goes into detail on Amazon’s 14 Leadership Principles and several operating practices. This will be the most helpful part of the book for most readers. You’ll get ideas on how to hire more effectively, why some team practices work and others don’t, and why Amazon relies on the written word to develop and communicate ideas.
You’ll discover why Amazon uses leading indicators to manage performance. There’s a chapter on the principle of “working backwards” that is so important, that the authors chose it for the title of the book. They describe it this way.
“Working Backwards is a systematic way to vet ideas and create new products. Its key tenet is to start by defining the customer experience, then iteratively work backwards from that point until the team achieves clarity of thought around what to build.”
Working backwards is one of those “simple but not easy” ideas. The good news is the authors go into detail on the process and tools Amazon uses to make it happen. They’re adaptable to most businesses regardless of size or industry.
The chapter on leadership principles and mechanisms plus any other chapter in the first section are worth the price of the book several times over.
Part 2 is “The Invention Machine at Work.” Chapters describe the development of Kindle, Prime, Prime Video, and Amazon Web Services (AWS). Each chapter is an example of how the principles and practices outlined in Part 1 guided product development in a real situation.
Praise to whoever is responsible for two devices that make this book more helpful. One is detailed appendices with examples that you can use as models, as well as a timeline to show you what was happening and when. The other is the practice of beginning each chapter with a short overview of what you’ll find in it.
In a Nutshell
Any business reader will benefit from reading Working Backwards, applying the principles, and adapting the practices Amazon uses so successfully.
You can check out some of my highlights and notes from this book on GoodReads.
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