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Working Backwards: Insights, Stories and Secrets from Inside Amazon by Colin Bryar & Bill Carr

Working Backwards: Insights, Stories and Secrets from Inside Amazon by Colin Bryar & Bill Carr

My Rating of “Working Backwards: Insights, Stories and Secrets from Inside Amazon” by Colin Bryar & Bill Carr: 10 / 10

There are plenty of people that sit on the edge of their seats waiting for the next Letter to Shareholders from Jeff Bezos. The same could be said for Warren Buffet. Learning about how an organisation thinks, acts and manages is facilitating. It’s why Working Backwards is one of the best books I’ve read this year. I rate it 10 out of 10. It’s written by two key ex-Amazon employees (one that was Bezos’ technical advisor). They helped build the organisation, its products and services. Furthermore they established a robust culture that has led Amazon to be one of the top five most impactful and innovative technology companies of our age.

The book focusses on the key ingredients that have supercharged Amazon’s recipe for success. The authors call these ingredients their leadership principles – a total of 14 of them. These have been established, tested and honed throughout the years to a perfected approach which has continued to bear fruit for Amazon (think Kindle, Alexa and AWS just to name a few).

Leadership Principles

Working Backwards is broken down into two sections. The first is focused on 6 of the 14 leadership principles. Each chapter anchors on a principle and how it evolved and is leveraged for success. What’s important about this book is that both successes, failures and learnings are discussed. Furthermore multiple stories are provided as examples to help provide context and application. You do not typically get this type of insight within Amazon.

Case Studies

The second section follows from the first in bringing the leadership principles together in moving the organisation forward. Said differently, each chapter becomes a case study. How a new product or service went from an idea to being in millions of peoples homes. The concepts of customer obsession, working backwards, raising the bar in terms of hiring and single threaded team leadership are some of the pillars of success.

I can see why Tyler Cowan (from Marginal Revolution) wrote that this book is one of the best management books he has read this year. It details the who, why and how of Amazon’s success in team dynamics, ideation and general management. It’s an excellent book and well written. It leaves no doubt why this approach has propelled Amazon into the innovation machine it is today.

Three key takeaways from the book:

  1. It’s worth pasting Jeff Bezos’ description of Amazon Culture (back in 2018) here: “Our culture is four things: customer obsession instead of competitor obsession; willingness to think long term, with a longer investment horizon than most of our peers; eagerness to invent, which of course goes hand in hand with failure; and then, finally, taking professional pride in operational excellence.”
  2. Speed, or more accurately velocity, which measures both speed and direction, matters in business. With all other things being equal, the organisation that moves faster will innovate more, simply because it will be able to conduct a higher number of experiments per unit of time. Said differently and by another Amazon SVP, “The best way to fail at inventing something is by making it somebody’s part-time job.”
  3. Be stubborn on the vision but flexible on the details. Also focus on the controllable input metrics versus the output.