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What's Unusual about Innovation at Amazon

At Digital Tonto, Greg Satell reviews the innovation method used by Amazon, warning that all companies should develop a process that reflects their own values and strengths. 

The Amazon approach has three unusual angles which we could copy:

  • Whereas the marketing communication materials are usually put together long after the product has been designed and tested, the Amazon innovation process begins with the creator thinking about what the customer will want and need to know.
     
  • Writing, revising and getting feedback about the writing are a proxy for THINKING. At Amazon, thinking about the product under development is more clear and distributed than is usual in many companies. 
     
  • When in a meeting, junior members comment first, senior members last. This is an inspired way to minimize the herd mentality. 

Here's my summary of the process, followed by Greg's detailed description:

For every new product under development, write a press release and an FAQ. Both parts are important for projecting customer understanding and response to a new product or service. These documents should be shared and critiqued by collaborators. Meetings should be few, slow and limited in attendance. There are no presentations but the meeting starts with an initial reading period, followed by feedback first from the most junior person present and then working up to the "hippo" (highest paid person with an opinion). 

Digital Tonto: How Amazon Innovates, 2018-Oct-7 by Greg Satell

At the heart of how Amazon innovates is its six-page memo, which is required at the start of every new initiative. What makes it effective isn’t so much the structure of the document itself, but how it is used to embed a fanatical focus on the customer from the day one. It’s something that Amazon employees have impressed upon them early in their careers.

So the first step in developing Prime Now was to write a press release. Landry’s document was not only a description of the service, but how hypothetical customers would react to it. How did the service affect them? What surprised them about it? What concerns did they want addressed? The exercise forced her to internalize how Amazon customers would think and feel about Prime Now from the very start.

Next she wrote a series of FAQ’s anticipating concerns for both customers and for various stakeholders within the firm, like the CFO, operations people and the leadership of the Prime program. So Landry had to imagine what questions each would have, how any issues would be resolved and then explain things in clear, concise language.

All of this happens before the first meeting is held, a single line of code is written or an early prototype is built, because the company strongly believes that until you internalize the customer’s perspective, nothing else really matters. That’s key to how the company operates.... 

Each meeting starts out with a 30-60 minute reading period in which everybody digests the memo. From there, all attendees are asked to share gut reactions — senior leaders typically speak last — and then delve into what might be missing, ask probing questions and drill down into any potential issues that may arise.

Subsequent meetings follow the same pattern to review the financials, hone the concept and review mockups as the team further refines ideas and assumptions. It’s usually not one big piece of feedback that you get,” Landry stressed. “It is really all about the smaller questions, they help you get to a level of detail that really brings the idea to life.”

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