Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Inside Amazon
by Colin Bryar and Bill Carr
Whatever you think about Amazon, it’s impossible to ignore the impact that it’s had on so many aspects of the business landscape, from retailing to publishing to entertainment and even cloud data services. Working Backwards, written by two early and senior executives, describes some of the notable business practices behind Amazon’s growth and impact. Mostly these are ideas that organizations of any type or size can use or adapt.
The book is organized into two parts. Part one–Being Amazonian–includes an introduction plus chapters on hiring, organizing, communications, and Amazon’s product/service development process, working backwards, from which the book draws its title. Part two–The Invention Machine at Work–includes four chapters with examples of the product development process at work. The book concludes with several appendices with additional examples and a timeline.
About the authors: Colin Bryar joined Amazon in 1998 and spent the next twelve years as part of Amazon’s senior leadership team, including two years as chief of staff to Amazon’s founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos. Bill Carr joined Amazon in 1999 and worked there for more than 15 years. He launched and oversaw the company’s digital music and video businesses, including Amazon Music, Prime Video, and Amazon Studios, in his capacity as vice president of digital media.
These two longtime, top-level Amazon executives take you on a deep dive into Amazon’s culture, leadership, and business practices.
This summary reflects my takeaways from a book I found useful and recommend to others. Reading a summary isn’t a substitute for reading the book. There’s much more than I can cover here. Plus, this is my interpretation. If these ideas resonate with you, I encourage you to get a copy from your library or favorite bookseller. Here are the Amazon links: e-book | Audiobook | Print
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes should be attributed to the book’s authors.
Disclosure: I’ve been an Amazon customer since 1997, and I’ve used their publishing platform to publish one book. I’m also an Amazon Associate and receive small commissions on sales of recommended products. None of this influenced my decision to profile this book. My decision was influenced solely by my curiosity.
Here are the things that impressed and intrigued me most:
- How they use behavioral-based language to define the company culture (The Amazon Leadership Principles), and how it permeates their decision-making processes.
- The emphasis on narrative in making key decisions and the tools they use.
- The “Bar Raiser” hiring process.
- The “Working Backwards” process for developing new products and services.
- The emphasis on patience and long-term growth but immediacy when it comes to solving problems.
- The scalability of the ideas–they’re not just for business or big business.
Finally, it was refreshing to read a business book and not have to put up with the constant drumbeat about competition and the related war language.
Amazon Leadership Principles
Amazon’s Leadership Principles define a different way of thinking and doing business than most companies. Newly hired Amazonians must learn and adapt to these principles, which are incorporated into every meeting, document, decision, interview, and performance discussion.
Currently, there are 16 leadership principles that can be found at Leadership Principles. They are too extensive to be reprinted here, but first and foremost is “Customer Obsession,” which is the key driver for the other principles and practices and the starting point for all decisions.
Far from being mere catchphrases on a poster or screensaver, Amazon’s Leadership Principles are the company’s living, breathing constitution.
There are eight steps in Amazon’s hiring process:
- Job Description
- Résumé Review
- Phone Screen
- In-House Interview
- Written Feedback (Interview Notes)
- Debrief/Hiring Meeting
- Reference Check
- Offer Through Onboarding
On its face, the process looks fairly typical, but there are some distinct differences, such as the role of the Bar Raisers, the centrality of the Leadership Principles, and the emphasis on written narrative as an information capture and thinking discipline, a practice used in hiring and in other important decisions.
The Bar Raiser Process
Hiring is something that challenges every organization and is subject to a variety of biases, notably personal biases and hiring urgency. The aim of the Bar Raiser program is to provide a scalable, repeatable, formal process that steers clear of biases and makes better hiring decisions.
“Bar Raiser” refers to both Amazon’s hiring process and a group of individuals involved. The idea is that every new hire should “raise the bar,” i.e., be better in one or more areas than existing team members. Raising the bar with every new hire should result in a stronger team and better performance.
One of a group of designated Bar Raisers takes part in every interview loop. They are specially trained and experienced interviewers who fill this role in addition to their other managerial duties. In this capacity, they are managed by a group of senior Bar Raisers.
The Bar Raiser has the authority to veto a hire and override the hiring manager, which they rarely do. Instead, they coach other interviewers, lead the debrief meeting, ask probing questions, ensure the process is followed, keep personal biases in check, and determine if the candidate meets the company’s hiring standards. Their decision isn’t influenced by urgency bias since they won’t be penalized if the role goes unfilled.
Hiring managers write job descriptions, which the Bar Raisers review for clarity. Interview team members also review and clarify job descriptions for new positions. This usually reveals job aspects that the hiring manager may have missed. The Leadership Principles are a common aspect of all job descriptions.
The hiring manager (or their designee for technical roles) conducts a one-hour phone interview with candidates identified by the recruiter. They explain the role and share a bit about their background and why they joined Amazon. They interview candidates for about 45 minutes using the Leadership Principles to frame “Tell me about a time when…” questions. The candidate gets 15 minutes to ask questions at the end.
The hiring manager sets up the in-house interview loop, which involves five to seven interviewers and takes five to seven hours to complete. The loop always includes the hiring manager, the recruiter, and a Bar Raiser.
All interviewers must have completed the company’s interview training process. No interviewer is more than one level below the candidate’s position. And, no direct reports can serve as interviewers.
The main goal of the interview is to compare a candidate’s past work style and behavior to the Amazon Leadership Principles. One or more of the Leadership Principles is assigned to each interview panel member to gather two types of data:
- Specific examples of how the candidate solved difficult problems or handled work situations like those at Amazon.
- How the candidate met their objectives and whether their methods are consistent with the Amazon Leadership Principles.
They found that “Tell me about your career” and “Walk me through your resume” questions don’t yield useful information. When asked such questions, most candidates will tell a positive, possibly exaggerated career story.
To figure out what role the candidate played in past successes, they use a drill-down process called “STAR,” which stands for Situation, Task, Action, and Result:
- “What was the situation?”
- “What were you tasked with?”
- “What actions did you take?”
- “What was the result?”
The interviewer keeps probing until they understand what the interviewee did versus what others did that led to success.
Each interviewer is expected to provide written, specific, highly detailed notes with examples from the interview. Notes are near transcript level and must be clear enough that the author doesn’t need to be present to be understood. (Oral reports in lieu of written notes is not an option.) The notes must include the interviewer’s vote on the candidate using one of four options:
- Strongly inclined to hire.
- Inclined to hire.
- Not inclined to hire, or
- Strongly not inclined to hire.
There’s no “undecided” option–no waffling or caveats.
Within a few days following the interviews, the Bar Raiser leads a debrief meeting to discuss the interviews and make a hiring decision.
Everyone reads all the interview notes at the beginning of the meeting. The Bar Raiser may ask if anyone would like to change their vote. Each interviewer now has more information on which to base their decision after reading all of the interview transcripts and commentary. Changing a vote based on new information is fine.
Bar Raisers lead the dialogue using the Socratic method, resulting in a decision from the hiring manager. If the hiring manager or Bar Raiser doesn’t have enough information to make a decision, it points to a failure upstream in the process.
A Bar Raiser rarely exercises their veto power. Instead, they use examples from the interview transcripts and ask probing questions to help the hiring manager and interview panel understand why a candidate doesn’t meet or raise the bar.
Reference checks rarely affect hiring. Instead, they validate the hiring decision and help the manager understand the person they will be working with.
Offer and Onboarding
The hiring manager personally makes the offer and pitches the role and company. The process also keeps candidates excited about the company and their coworkers. After the offer, a team member checks in with the candidate at least once a week.
Amazon has grown quickly because of “single-threaded leadership.” In this system, a single person is in charge of a single major project and leads a separate, mostly independent team to get it done. This innovation eliminated a lot of cross-team dependencies and communication that slow progress and disempowers teams.
It started with “two-pizza” teams. Early on, they thought small, autonomous, highly accountable teams with clear mandates and metrics were the answer. (A team small enough that two pizzas were enough to feed them.) It turned out that the biggest predictor of team success wasn’t size but whether the leader had the appropriate skills, authority, and experience to staff and manage a team with a single goal of getting the job done.
Two-pizza morphed into “single-threaded leaders” and “separable, single-threaded teams.” “Single-threaded” (in geek-speak) means you work on a single thing at a time. “Separable” essentially means independent with clear boundaries.
Better Decisions Using Narrative Docs, Not Powerpoint
Yes, they banned PowerPoint at senior team meetings. In PowerPoint’s place, Amazon’s two main idea development and communication tools are the “Six-Pager” and the “PR/FAQ” (press release and frequently asked questions). The Six-Pager is used to propose, describe and review all ideas, processes, or business ventures the senior management team considers. The PR/FAQ is added for the Working Backwards process for developing new products.
The problems with PowerPoint:
- The information is too thin. A narrative document can contain up to seven times more information than a PowerPoint slide.
- It relies too heavily on the skills of the presenter, which can inappropriately sway decisions.
- There is no centralized, permanent record of the evolution of an idea or proposal. The idea is fragmented across the PowerPoint slides and the verbal presentation. The record of the discussion is fragmented across people’s notes and memories.
Advantages of a narrative document:
- It requires the proposer to think more critically, and the ideas are more fully developed. The discipline of writing forces clear thinking.
- It’s harder to hide half-baked thinking on a written page. You can’t gloss over it with charm and presentation style.
- It can anticipate and address objections, concerns, alternative points of view, and misconceptions.
- It connects the dots and creates a compelling argument for the reader, unlike disjointed bullet points and a stream of graphics that require the audience to do all the work.
The point is to provide a presentation that stands on its own. There’s a great example of a Six-Pager in the book on the subject of replacing PowerPoint.
Why the six-page limit? They found that people read complex information at the rate of about three minutes per page–about 20 minutes for six pages. Also, six pages is a valuable “forcing function” that ensures that the discussion centers on only the most important points. Some are longer than six pages because they have attachments containing supplemental information that’s not normally read during a meeting. Some are shorter if it’s a shorter meeting. The rule of thumb is to reserve two-thirds of the meeting for discussion.
Two optional sections: Tenets and FAQs. Including key tenets on which the proposal is based provides a reference point from which the reader can evaluate the rest. If a tenet is in dispute, addressing that tenent is easier than wading through all the points that fall under it. FAQs anticipate counterarguments, points of contention, and misconceptions. They save the reader time and demonstrate thoroughness on the part of the authors.
How they use the Six-Pager:
- They devote the first 20 minutes of a one-hour meeting to participants silently reading the narrative, taking notes, and annotating their copies.
- The presenter takes the floor and asks for feedback. (They don’t walk through the document–that’s the point of the reading time.) Then the audience questions the presenters–they clarify, probe, offer insights, and suggest improvements. The objective is to “find the truth about the proposed idea” and work to improve it. It’s about supporting the team by providing constructive feedback.
- Someone other than the presenter takes notes. The discussion is an important part of the narrative process, so it’s critical to capture it.
- They see feedback as collaboration. In the comments, they take the idea as seriously as the writer. Providing constructive feedback isn’t just commenting on a document, it’s contributing to an idea, and comments can make a significant and lasting impact.
- Jeff Bezos’s trick for coming up with novel insights is to assume that every sentence he reads is wrong until he can prove otherwise. He’s questioning the content, not the author’s intent.
This narrative approach requires extra effort upfront on the part of the presenting team and the audience but results in better decisions in the long run through a robust and collaborative critical thinking process.
After we started using the documents, our meetings changed. There was more meat and more detail to discuss, so the sessions were livelier and longer.
Working Backwards is Amazon’s systematic method for testing ideas and developing new products. It begins with defining the desired customer experience, then working backward iteratively until there’s clarity about what to build and why. The majority of Amazon’s major products and business initiatives since 2004 have been created using this process.
The key tool is the “PR/FAQ” (press release/frequently asked questions). The press release is usually just a few paragraphs–under one page. The FAQ is longer but usually five pages or less. “The goal isn’t to explain all the excellent work you have done but rather to share the distilled thinking that has come from that work.” Limiting the length is a forcing function that leads to better thinking and communication.
The point of the process is to shift the perspective from the company to the customer. The book contains an outline and examples, including an example from the Kindle launch where creating the PR/FAQ led to breakthrough features that came from putting themselves in the customer’s shoes.
Focus on controllable input metrics. Organizations have little direct control over their output metrics. Instead, they should focus on the activities they directly control, their input metrics, which measure the things they need to get right to produce the desired results in their output metrics. (The book has an extensive discussion of metrics best suited to large organizations.)
In reviewing metrics:
- DMAIC (Define-Measure-Analyze-Improve-Control) is a well-known process improvement method.
- Discussions about operational and strategic issues should be kept separate.
- For faster interpretation, use consistent and familiar formatting for charts and data.
- Don’t waste time on expected outcomes; instead, focus on variances.
- Operational “owners” must own their metrics and be able to explain variances.
- Input metrics provide guidance, while output metrics show results.
- Not every chart must be tied to a goal.
- Data plus anecdotes tell a better story than data alone.
Book details and where to buy it:
Get the book on Amazon: e-book | Audiobook | Print (affiliate links*)
Amazon rating: 4.6 of 5 stars
Goodreads rating: 4.2 of 5 stars
Page count: 304 pages
Publication date: February 9, 2021
Authors’ website: Working Backwards Book
*These are affiliate links. We may receive a small commission from Amazon on your purchase at no additional cost to you.