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.

Resources: Steve Blank Playlist

If you’re not familiar with Steve Blank, start here:

The Principles of Lean

“No business plan survives first contact with customers.”

On Acting on Customer Discovery

If you’re going to go out and discover whether customers like your idea or not, this is not an outsourceable problem. The founders need to do this. Particularly, the people capable of changing strategy need to be the ones hearing good news and bad. … Getting feedback from customers is the most valuable thing you will do as entrepreneurs. It is not outsourceable.

Customer Development

The thing is to think as much in terms of developing customers as developing products. Once you’ve got the basic idea, watch all of this (long) video:

Bonus Material

Seeds (2): bikes, planes and automobiles

Many of the seeds of the automobile industry came from bicycle manufacturers (I touched on this in Use, Copy, Repair, Make), and on a visit to the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu I learnt some more of the story.

Karl Benz, widely credited as the maker of the first practical automobile, started in mechanical engineering and ironwork and started experimenting with petrol engines to power industrial machines. In 1883 he joined forces with Max Rose and Friedrich Wilhelm Eßlinger who owned – you guessed it – a bicycle repair shop. Benz & Companie Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik made petrol engines for industry, which allowed Benz to develop his expertise and finish his first Patent Motorwagen in 1885.

Other companies that grew out of bicycle manufacturers include Rover, Peugeot, Opel, Skoda, Humber and Hilman, Sunbeam, and Calcott.

There’s a parallel trend with weapons manufactures: Royal Enfield and B.S.A. (British Small Arms) turned their expertise in machining from guns to motorbikes and cars.

And it doesn’t stop at cars: the Wright Brothers were bicycle mechanics turned manufacturers who turned their hand to aviation instead.

We needed bike companies to innovate and start making cars, becoming cross-breed or hybrid companies before second generation ‘pure’ car companies picked up the torch and made further innovations as specialists.

So what, Sharky?

Right now, somewhere, in something that already exists, the seed of the Next Big Thing is taking root and getting ready to grow.

  • If you have an idea of what the future looks like, what might the seeds look like? Can you shape your project with the Next Big Thing in mind?
  • Looking at things from the other way round, what might your organisation be the seed of? What’s The Future for your field?
  • Is there a hybrid step (engines and bicycles, bicycle engineering and wings) that you could take to open up possibilities for your organisation?

Sketchpad studio springboard

Fit for Purpose or Good Enough mean different things depending on what we’re talking about, who it’s for and where and how it’s going to be seen – which is to say that they exist in a network, and that Good Enough can change even for a single piece of work.

This often happens as a function of time:

  • Dirt roads might work for a village, but they’re not really Good Enough for a town.
  • 30 kids copying off a blackboard for an hour or two was a perfectly adequate model of education a few generations ago;
  • What passed as a good website or presentation fifteen years ago rarely stands up today (unless you’re Tom Peters);
  • The writing of Charles Dickens has shifted from being Popular Entertainment to Literature (I doubt much of his work would be serialised in magazines today).

And of place:

  • The famous Fountain was changed simply by being placed in a gallery;
  • Cold beer tastes better on a beautiful beach;
  • We become different people at concerts, in museums, on holiday;
  • A shippable blog post is rarely Good Enough for a book.

And of who we are:

  • Children’s TV is a lot less interesting when you’re no longer a child, and teenage angst gets old as we do;
  • Fox News and The Guardian are indispensable – or not – depending on where you’re coming from;
  • Bat is a delicacy if you’re from Manado.

And – and all of the above are really all examples of this – what it’s connected to:

  • Dickens’ books gain interest and value in relationship to each other, and to Das Kapital, and to TV adaptations;
  • The Beatles’ studio outtakes and rehearsals were by definition not good enough – but became collectible in relationship to all those A-sides, and with time;
  • The contents of Da Vinci’s sketchbooks weren’t Good Enough for a gallery when he was filling them.

Which brings me to the variable quality of posts here, and who and what they’re for. Some are ready to share. Some are sketches. All gain value (for me at least) in relationship to the rest as hummus, hinterland and springboard to something new, and to a better Good Enough.

Driverless Crocodile Podcast Special #1: Useful things with Victoria Patience

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This special episode is a tribute to Kevin Kelly and Mark Frauenfelder’s Cool Tools. Apologies for the variable sound-quality of this podcast – see Doing to See for more information.

Victoria Patience is a Spanish-to-English translator and author’s editor who helps Latin American intergovernmental organisations, non-profits and academics reach English-speaking audiences.

Victoria lives on the outskirts of Buenos Aires with her husband, two children, two cats, three dogs, and a flock of chickens whose numbers have been dwindling since dog number three arrived. When not searching texts for stray commas or searching the floor for stray Lego, she might be found cooking or vegetable gardening with a podcast in the background.

Show notes below.

Tool 1: Hori-Hori knife

AU$ 42 from forestrytools.com.au

Wikpedia says: “The word “Hori” (ホリ) means “to dig” in Japanese and “hori-hori” is the onomatopoeia for a digging sound. The tool itself is commonly referred to as a レジャーナイフ, “leisure knife” or a 山菜ナイフ, “Sansai(=Mountain-vegetable)knife” in Japan.”

Tool 2: Wallet App by Budgetbakers

US$ 40ish / year

Tool 3: Aeropress

UKP 30 from amazon.co.uk – Image from aeropress.com

Tool 4: Aaptive workout app and JBL Endurance Sprint Bluetooth headphones

aaptive screenshot
UKP 40ish (amazon)

Doing to see

My sister and I just recorded a special episode for Driverlesscroc Podcast(‘Useful Things’), learnt a lot doing it, including:

  • That recording both ends of a skype call is a viable way to work over distance
  • The importance of triple-checking your mics after I made a schoolboy error and plugged my mic into a headphone jack. I could see that I was recording something, but it turned out to be my laptop’s built-in mic rather than my lapel mic, resulting in a voice-track that sounds like it was recorded in a bucket
  • That Kevin Kelly and Mark Frauenfelder do a really good job of keeping their Cool Tools show tight – we were trying hard to stay focused but easily racked up 40 minutes.
  • That Audacity projects are big (we hit a couple of gigabytes for all the uncompressed audio and project files).
  • That (I think) Audacity doesn’t play well with syncing to the cloud – some of the source-files for my project file somehow got corrupted and I almost lost it all – fortunately I’d made an almost-finished .wav of the whole thing so it was saveable.
  • That ‘ship the work’ sometimes means ‘finish the project’ – get it done, learn from it, move on. This project doesn’t exactly have a ‘client’, and its main audience is us – so we can say ‘not quite good enough – but finished’ with a clear conscience. I’ll post it to the podcast for completeness, and as a reference for anyone interested in the journey.

The idea that doing helps you see – that experience counts for a lot – is pretty obvious in lots of areas of life. You can’t understand being on stage, or driving a car, or playing in a sporting contest, until you’ve done them.

But we tend to forget how true this is for almost everything, and how context-specific our experience tends to be. By doing, we see.

Machine. Ecosystem. (5) – Duncan Green on systems thinking and development

A ‘system’ is an interconnected set of elements coherently organized in a way that achieves something. It is more than the sum of its parts: a body is more than an aggregate of individual cells; a university is not merely an agglomeration of individual students, professors, and buildings; an ecosystem is not just a set of individual plants and animals.

A defining property of human systems is complexity; because of the sheer number of relationships and feedback loops among their many elements, they cannot be reduced to simple chains of cause and effect. Think of a crowd on a city street, or a flock of starlings wheeling in the sky at dusk. Even with supercomputers, it is impossible to predict the movement of any given person or starling, but there is order; amazingly few collisions occur even on the most crowded streets.

In complex systems, change results from the interplay of many diverse or apparently unrelated factors. Those of us engaged in seeking change need to identify which elements are important and understand how they interact.

Unfortunately, the way we commonly think about change projects onto the future the neat narratives we draw from the past. Many of the mental models we use are linear plans – ‘if A, then B’ – with profound consequences in terms of failures, frustration, and missed opportunities [when the plan is thrown out by unexpected consequences within the plan, or by things that were never in it]. As Mike Tyson memorably said, ‘everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth.’

Let me illustrate with a metaphor. Baking a cake is a linear, ‘simple’ system. All I need to do is find a recipe, buy the ingredients, make sure the oven is working…

Baking a cake is also a fairly accurate metaphor for the approach of many governments, aid agencies, and activist organisations. They decide on a goal (the cake), pick a well-established method (the recipe), find some partners and allies (the ingredients), and off they go.

The trouble is that real life rarely bakes like a cake. Engaging in a complex system is more like raising a child. What fate would await your new baby if you decided to go linear and design a project plan setting out activities, assumptions, outputs, and outcomes for the next twenty years and then blindly followed it?

Deng Xiaoping said, “We will cross the river by feeling the stones under our feet, one by one.”

Duncan Green – How Change Happens (amazon)

Vision. Positioning. Execution. (1)

You see the traffic, approach the road, pause at the kerb, lean forward just as someone passes to get some forward motion, then step into the space between cars.
Or you press the button and wait for the light.

You see a public holiday on the calendar, decide that you want to go away, decide where and who with, then you book, pack, and go.

You see a teammate with the ball and an opposing player moving to tackle. You move into position for a pass – changing course slightly once the ball is in the air – catch it, and run into space.

You see your child growing up and glimpse what they need now and will need in future. You make changes to free up time. You learn new things to share with them. You spend the time, play, talk, teach, give them things they need.

You see a need for a product or service, know that you can make it, start working, gathering resources, building relationships with suppliers and buyers, making it, sharing it with the people it’s for.

You see a glass on the edge of a table and someone gesturing enthusiastically. You move the glass, continue the conversation.

You see someone in need, move closer to find out what’s going on, do what you can to help.

Vision. Positioning. Execution.

The donut: getting going [guest post]

New initiatives can be a challenge can’t they?

Plotting the course.

Anticipating problems.

Obsessing over details.

Wondering how we’ll deal with XYZ scenarios in 6 months’ time.

I recently read this:

When you’re at the beginning, don’t obsess about the middle, because the middle is going to look different when you get there. Just look for a strong beginning and a strong ending and get going.

Chip and Dan Heath – Switch (amazon)

They’re right of course.

We need to paint a picture of the future –  to know where we are going; to be inspired.

And we need to start well – perhaps a small pilot, with trusted people, with clear parameters.

But the middle? Just like when I bit into my donut today – you’ll find out what’s in the middle when you get there.**

**Today it was custard. Jam is my favourite.

On making stuff: that Steve Jobs quote

When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money.

That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is – everything around you that you call life, was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.

I think that’s very important and however you learn that, once you learn it, you’ll want to change life and make it better, cause it’s kind of messed up, in a lot of ways. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.

Steve Jobs