Amazon: working backwards and other stories

I’m late to the party on this, but I’ve just come across this very helpful technique for developing products and services, as used at Amazon. Essentially, you start by immediately writing a customer-facing press release for the finished product, and work backwards from there:

Each consists of a one-page “press release” (for an offering that doesn’t even exist and might never be commercialized), a six-page set of FAQs (frequently asked questions that customers can be anticipated to have about the offering, and their straightforward answers), and often a bit more descriptive material, sometimes even a mockup or prototype.

The process we’re calling the heart of Amazon’s renowned innovation prowess is called “working backwards” and it takes its cue from Amazon’s long-established leadership principles. The first of them starts: “Customer obsession. Leaders start with the customer and work backwards …” Following that principle, these documents constitute a visualization mechanism. They force a person with an inventive idea to get very clear on the objective, and to describe it in a way that others can also grasp without ambiguity. The documents don’t just go into email boxes. Their authors present them internally with the kind of energy they would deserve if this were really the day  the offering was launched.

If the discussion wows its audience – a manager or set of managers in a position to allocate resources to develop it further – then the question quickly becomes: how do we accomplish everything it would take to get there? It’s fine if, as the work gets underway, discoveries suggest that the vision should change somewhat; and in that case the “PR/FAQ” gets revised. Wilke stresses that these are “living documents.” But still, “as you begin to iterate on the product, and you revise those docs,” he stresses, “you periodically compare them to the original ones to make sure you haven’t drifted so far from the vision that you’re not happy with what you’re actually building.”

Jeff Dyer and Hal GregersenHow Does Amazon Stay at Day One (Forbes)

Here’s a bit more on the process:

A press release is usually the very last step in the product development and launch process. It tells the world: “Here I am, this is what I can do, and this is why you should care.”

To be effective, the author must step back from the technobabble trap and communicate in terms that resonate with the target customer.

“One important element of the press release is that it is written in so-called ‘Oprah-speak’. Or in other words, a way that is easy to understand,” says Nikki Gilliard of Econsultancy. “This essentially allows Amazon to cut through tech-jargon and any descriptions that would only confuse the customer, in order to deliver a mainstream product.”

The starting point for the product definition is a customer-centric document, unconcerned with implementation details, technology or user interface design. Then, the focus shifts to what encompasses a truly great solution for the customer. If the press release is compelling, then you’re onto something.

“Iterating on a press release is a lot quicker and less expensive than iterating on the product itself,” says Amazon’s Ian McAllister. “If the press release is hard to write, then the product is probably going to suck. Keep working at it until the outline for each paragraph flows.”

Heather McCloskeyWhy the Most Forward-Thinking Product Teams Work Backwards (ProductPlan)

I love this idea. I’ve been thinking a lot about how important (and hard) it is to write good specs recently, and writing the press release and FAQs seems like a powerful way to keep customer focused even at the earliest stages. The idea of iterating on the press-release and FAQs in conversation with customers (‘spec as minimum viable product’) makes it better still.

The rest of the Forbes article is great too – highly recommend.

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...