There hasn’t been a hotter business topic than Innovation for the last couple of years, yet I am a little surprised that so few founders invest in actively nurturing innovation at their companies. You’ve probably achieved long strides in other aspects of your business like reengineering the supply chain, boosting product quality, and rolling out fancy frameworks like the lean 6 sigma.
These efforts have undoubtedly earned you huge dividends. And yet when it comes to innovation, the gap between aspiration and accomplishment seems as big as ever. And it’s ironic to think of a business challenge where real progress has been harder to come by.
So what’s the problem?
Well, many people assume that only a few genetically blessed souls are capable of creative thought and execution. When in reality, to be an innovator you don’t need a crystal ball; you need a painstakingly process-driven culture at the birth of every idea, and undying faith in the people who come up with them.
At least that’s exactly what’s happening at Amazon – the world’s most innovative company. Ever wondered how Amazon keeps up its torrid pace of launching new products and services? It all comes down to following a set of stubborn rules and thought processes that function as the standard interface for putting ideas in play. Once everyone becomes familiar with it, barriers to participation fall. After pouring through several articles on Amazon’s culture, here’s how I think you can channel your inner Bezos (OK that sounds a bit creepy):
Before an idea is submitted:
At the heart of Amazon’s renowned innovation prowess is the idea of ‘working backwards’. They start by visualising the finished product! This allows the person with the inventive idea to get very clear on the objective – to define the features and outline the benefits without getting caught up on the technical details. Too often we focus our energy and attention on the packaging and not the idea itself. This practice allows teams to not fret about the details of how to build it and who to ask for help, and instead just focus on thinking creatively. If the features of the finished product are laid on the table – teams can then deconstruct it and assign proper resources to build it. Also, this makes sure that you are not bombarded with ideas that are woefully underdeveloped or downright crazy. An invention can be perfectly workable but if it’s hard to imagine it ever being a large-scale success, it’s probably not worth the effort.
Every time someone comes forward with a new idea, you need to ask them this question: Will customers love it? And if the answer is not a screaming YES! You should not be spending another minute on it. From this, we know that Amazon is adamantly not pursuing a competency-driven strategy —that is, making plans for new offerings based mainly on what it has a distinct operational strength in. It is instead nurturing a competency-building strategy, which require a deep understanding of the capabilities they lack, and investing in stretching and developing new skills. This goes hand-in-hand with their philosophy of coaching and investing in the best talent – something every Start-up should be doing since day 1.
The reality in early stage start-ups is that most of us are more competitor-obsessed, scaling and studying every move so that we can have short-term wins. Ultimately, focusing on your competitors and not your customers, just leads to a zero-sum game.
Written narrative culture
Every new idea proposal needs to submit a one-page press release and a six-page set of FAQs. Amazon is clear that it will only fund ideas that can be articulated crisply. The idea is that if the author simply hands these papers off to a team of engineers, they should be able to start building it immediately. When people write down their ideas, they are forced to think through the tough questions and formulate clear structured replies. These papers are also supposed to communicate a clear solutions to a problem customers have been experiencing. The team has to put themselves in the shoes of busy, non-expert users and anticipate the issues they might encounter. At its best, this is storytelling about customers facing problems and having a better way to solve them.
After an idea is submitted:
One-way door vs Two-way doors
Jeff Bezos believes the reason some decision-makers are too timid to take a new idea forward is because they mistake two-way doors for one-way doors. That if they sign off on a proposal, there is no room for mistakes or iterations. When every idea is treated as a two-way door – the person steering the idea forward is given the option of walking right out of it if he doesn’t like how it’s going. And so something as uncertain as that needs only the lightest weight approval process. Instead of being terrified at the idea of failing, you need to be afraid of moving slowly and being bogged down by multiple layers of management which paralyse employees into a state of inaction.
Failure is constantly spoken of as something that is expected and even celebrated at Amazon, but what people have in mind is failure of a certain kind—the kind that is tied up with success.
‘To invent you need to experiment’
Disagree and commit
Not everyone agrees at Amazon, and the company attempts to encourage its staff to question plans with backbone and conviction. To say yes to an idea, the person positioned to allocate resources doesn’t have to be sold on it entirely — he or she only needs to be willing to give it a chance to be tested. You need to recognise very early that getting more experiments underway isn’t only a matter of getting the rank and file to suggest more ideas, but encourage the habit of bringing more ideas forward. Just as vital is getting the decision-makers to green light more experiments.
Single Threaded leadership
Once a proposal gets an OK to proceed, it is assigned to one person only. This person isn’t expected to multitask and is someone whose sole responsibility is to wake up and worry about the idea and begin building the thing. In order to transform the idea into a product, you need to empower your employees to take ownership, to think long term and put a team together.
‘The best way to fail at inventing something is to make it somebody’s part time job’
Ultimately it boils down to the simple philosophy of creating an environment where it is completely accepted to take risks, try hard, and fail. Something you hear being preached at every startup convention – but is sadly not practiced enough.
Some of you might be inclined to argue that most early stage startups or startups in general don’t have the resources akin to that of Amazon at their disposal to experiment freely at hand. But as far as the recipe for innovative companies goes, the magic lies in combining a hardware of structured idea submission platforms and limiting hierarchical gauntlet, with the software of a culture where failure and experimentation are championed above all.
An office setup for generating ideas can be fizzy and energising, however if your employees are not taught to focus and think like innovators, when sparks start to fly, the collisions can be noisy and distracting.