One of the most successful product organizations over the past 20 years is Amazon. As of 2022, the US census shows there are 131.2 million households in the US, and Amazon is estimated to have north of 150 million US-based members in its “Amazon Prime” membership program.
So how did they do it?
In this article, we’ll break down what working backwards, aka the Amazon method, is and how it became so successful. We’ll talk about how it works, how Amazon applies working backwards throughout their organization, and its benefits.
- Background information
- How working backwards works
- How the Amazon method applies this guidance
- The main benefit of working backwards
Working backwards is known interchangeably as the Amazon method. But their idea to work backwards had to start somewhere, right?
Amazon started this by turning to the advice of one of the best-selling nonfiction books of all time: Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In particular, Amazon’s product organization leans hard on “Habit #2: Begin with the End in Mind.”
Beginning with the end in mind is designed to train individuals to “create” things twice: once in their imagination and then once in real life. It results in several benefits:
- A clearer vision
- An orientation set on a goal (vs. a solution or activity)
- Early thoughts on if the goal is achievable and how
“People are working harder than ever, but because they lack clarity and vision, they aren’t getting very far. They, in essence, are pushing a rope with all of their might” — Stephen Covey
How working backwards works
So how does one work backwards and begin with the end in mind? Stephen Covey presents a few ideas:
Define the end result
The delta between being a product manager and a product leader is this orientation. Product managers focus on efficiency. Product leaders focus on setting a strategic vision. Try asking yourself:
- What are we trying to accomplish?
- What do I hope we become?
- What business do I want to be in tomorrow? Five years from now, what do I hope they say about my product?
Then craft a mission statement
A well-written mission statement gives everyone the framework and the ability to autonomously make decisions aimed in the same direction. It should lay out why your product exists and what makes it different. Consider four elements:
- Value — what problem are you solving, and for whom?
- Purpose — what greater good will your product provide; what’s the meaning behind your work?
- Attainability — while the mission statement should be challenging, it must be perceived to be plausible
- Specificity — be equal parts broad and narrow; do not seek to be all things to all people, but leave it relatively open for pivots as you learn
Ensure that this is short, puts goals into focus, and charts a path to move the vision into reality.
How the Amazon method applies this guidance
Some companies practice product development by beginning with a solution, engineering it, then asking their marketing team to find customers for it. Amazon does the opposite.
They invest heavily in the upfront process of discovery, ensuring that the customer problem is intricately known and detailed — including the context around when the problem occurs and the benefit of solving it.
This results in the product manager writing a draft press release announcing the product they are pitching to create. Ian McCallister, the former director of Amazon Smile, shared some of the document’s requirements in a Quora post that’s since been taken down:
- Heading: name the product in a way the reader will understand
- Subheading: describe who the market for the product is and what benefit they get. Limit it to one sentence
- Problem: describe the problem your product solves
- Solution: describe how your product elegantly solves the problem
- Quote from you: a quote from a spokesperson in the company
- How to get started: describe how easy it is to get started
- Customer quote: provide a quote from a hypothetical customer that describes how they experienced the benefit
- Closing and call to action: wrap it up and give pointers on where the reader should go next
Typically, these documents are limited to one to one-and-a-half pages and are silently read at the beginning of meetings. The merits are debated, feedback is given, and product managers end up making multiple revisions to the press release. This saves Amazon time and money, as changing a Google Doc is a lot less expensive than changing code.
Amazon Kindle started as a press release, as did Amazon Prime and AWS.
The main benefit of working backwards
There’s one key benefit to this method, and it’s how it forces design thinking.
There’s an oft-shared quote in the startup world that has been attributed to way too many people to list: “Fall in love with the problem… not the solution.”
Most products fail because they begin with a solution and jump immediately to how to bring it to life and when.
The best products in the world are created when people start with a problem (the “why”) and end with the what, how, and when.
Whichever orientation (solution versus problem) the team begins with is likely the one they’ll fall in love with. They’re likely to become attached to it and fail to refine details against it.
- If a team becomes attached to a customer problem, they’ll burn cycles trying to come up with a solution tied to it
- If a team becomes attached to a solution, they’ll burn cycles trying to come up with a customer problem tied to it
Potential troubles with working backwards
The benefit of working backwards — that it creates a destination — is also its Achilles’ heel. If the uncertainty is still high, it can cause premature convergence on a specific idea without enough time given to weigh alternatives. Be careful in employing this approach if either of these two factors are at play:
- Significant time pressure — speed can cause biases and premature convergence to enter your solution
- High degrees of uncertainty — specifying a set environment that is only moderately likely to happen can force rigidity that will cause your team to fail later
Working backwards, aka the Amazon method, changed the way product organizations run. By considering and implementing this method, you can be one of these best products by beginning with the end in mind — aka defining the problem to solve, the “why” — and following that with a well-crafted vision (aka press release) that inspires and guides a group of like-minded people to deliver that outcome to the world.
Working backwards ensures that you and your team have a clear alignment between intentions and a meaningful problem to solve.
Featured image source: IconScout
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