In the first part of this series, I explored Jeff Bezos’s approach to strategy. This article builds on his strategic framework and dives deeper into how Bezos has evolved and succeeded as a manager.
There are many stories from across the internet that portray Jeff Bezos as ruthless in accomplishing his vision. Much of what Brad Stone acerbically writes in his book about the rise of Amazon would leave one to wonder, who would want to work for Bezos? Bezos has high expectations and is not shy to provide negative feedback if his expectations are not met. He holds himself to the same high standards as his team. It is hard to argue the effectiveness of this approach. Bezos led teams at Amazon, Blue Origin, and the Washington Post have been trailblazers in opening new markets and innovating current ones. The following sections include some key takeaways from Jeff Bezos’s management style.
On Meetings, Writing, and Thinking
When was the last time you were in a meeting? Was the agenda accomplished? Or did attendees digress into discussions that were irrelevant and unproductive? The latter happens all too often. This has led many of the great businesspeople and thinkers of our time to be anti-meeting. Famed management scholar Peter Drucker once said “Meetings are a symptom of bad organization. The fewer the meetings the better.” Basecamp founder Jason Fried has all but removed unproductive meetings from his organization. He highlights how he has accomplished this in a great blog post called Status Meetings are the Scrouge. While most organizations would surely benefit from less meetings, I have found there to be a lot of resistance to this idea. Meetings are a vanity measure for productivity. Many believe the fuller their calendar is, the more “work” they are getting done.
It seems like Jeff Bezos has also noticed this meeting problem, and has developed a solution to transition his organizations into more outcome driven and productive meetings. He does this through written memos. If a team member wants to present something to him, they must write a memo explaining the idea or issue. In some instances, Bezos even requires this draft to resemble an Amazon product launch news brief. Bezos believes long form writing helps people refine vision and purpose. There is also evidence that writing clarifies thinking. In his book, Stone writes that this process is frustrating to some employees because of the time it takes to prepare for a meeting. Bezos is willing to accept this meeting overhead because he believes requiring employees to take the time to think through and write what they would like to present before the meeting leads to more more productive sessions.
When employees take the extra time to write through their thoughts it improves ownership and accountability.
On Primitives, Organizing, and Outsourcing
The most important activity for any manager is empowering their team.
Over the years, Jeff Bezos has used a couple of strategies to do this effectively, but maybe the most important is utilizing a concept called “primitives.” Stone writes that Bezos was a huge fan of the book Creation by Steven Grand, the creator of a video game called Creatures. The crux of the game was for a player to cultivate and grow an organism over time. Grand’s approach to creating intelligent life (in the game) was creating simple foundational building blocks, called primitives, and then allowing behaviors to emerge from there.
This idea of primitives has shaped Jeff Bezos philosophy on building teams. In his book, Stone discusses the ides of `two-pizza teams,’ writing “The entire company… would restructure itself around what he called `two-pizza teams.’ Employees would be organized into autonomous groups of fewer than ten people — small enough that, when working late, the team members could be fed with two pizza pies. These teams would be independently set loose on Amazon’s biggest problems.” Organizing this way addressed complexity by simplifying. Just like Grand in creatures, Bezos broke his organism down into its basic parts and removed barriers in hope that good results would emerge to solve Amazon’s hardest problems. In this model, each team was self-maintaining and independent. This included distributed, including their own P&L and governance. Amazon’s innovative product development and growth over the past few years indicates that this strategy is working.
The idea of primitives is not only limited to team organization. Bezos has also used it to build products. AWS is a great example of one of Amazon’s primitive based products. As Stone writes, AWS has broken down data center infrastructure into the smallest and simplest components (e.g. storage, computing, databases, etc.) and allowed developers at Amazon to freely access them to fit their specific needs. After the success at Amazon, AWS was eventually commercialized and sold to outside developers. Over the years AWS has drastically reduced infrastructure cost for startups and served as a springboard for companies like Snap and Instagram to emerge.
While this primitive model seems to have helped Amazon to maintain creative problem solving as it has scaled, it would not work if the right people were not involved. Bezos has strong awareness for his weaknesses and has been able to effectively hire outsiders to help mitigate them. Stone highlights many stories where Bezos searches far and wide to find the best people in the world to solve problems that were outside of his circle of competence. These problems included core business components like supply chain management, publishing, and technology infrastructure. Talent is at the foundation of the success of this primitive model. Without these highly skilled folks, it is hard to imagine the model working.
While there are certainly many more management lessons to be learned from Jeff Bezos, it is clear these basic lessons almost certainly will lead to improvement for any leader or project manager. The takeaways are simple:
- If you have high standards of your team, you must adhere to them yourself.
- Reduce your meeting volume and when meetings are required, make sure your team is prepared. Enforcing a rule of writing a brief to prepare for a meeting reduces “fluff” meetings, clarifies thinking, and creates accountability and ownership.
- Breaking things down to component parts or “primitives” and empowering small autonomous teams to solve these problems is a great way improve innovation, creativity, and speed.
- Understand your weakness and hire people to mitigate them