Why Amazon's Working Backwards Framework Works — But Not at Your Companyby@smwii
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1,177 reads

Why Amazon's Working Backwards Framework Works — But Not at Your Company

by Stephen M. Walker IIJune 15th, 2022
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Working Backwards is a process that starts with the customer and works backwards to the product. It's difficult to replicate outside of Amazon because it requires a deep commitment from the top, hiring for clarity in writing, and a focus on customer centricity.

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All innovation at Amazon follows the same framework. New features and products from Alexa to Groceries to AWS – all start with a simple document called the PR/FAQ. And while much is written about the origins or how to implement the Working Backwards process, I have yet to see many organizations outside of Amazon successfully adopt it.

On the surface, Working Backwards is incredibly simple… it doesn’t require different roles or certifications like Scrum. Or workshop facilitators like Design Sprints.

But the truth is the simplicity of it masks the true hard work, which I believe include:

  • Brilliant, creative problem solving
  • Deeply understanding customer needs
  • Strong collaboration and coordination across disciplines
  • Product thinking and differentiation

And if we’re honest, few people are great at those four things.

So we cargo cult aspects of a great idea and mutate it into a checklist without knowing the underlying principles. When reflecting on the ratio of availability to adoption for this concept outside of Amazon, it is clear that Working Backwards is one of Amazon’s unique Process Powers (ala Helmer’s 7 Powers).

Why are there few to no companies replicating this technique to great success?

Having worked at both the mothership and companies that attempted to bring the PR/FAQ into the culture, let me walk through why I think the framework works at Amazon, but is difficult to replicate elsewhere.

Culture Starts From the Top

Bezos cares – or at least cared until retiring in 2021 – deeply about working backwards from the customer. He is obsessed with it. And he is obsessed with the employees truly innovating for the customer. It’s not a side project or pilot program, it’s deeply rooted in the culture and leadership principles.

In many regards, organizations are simply amplifications of the behaviors and preferences of the founders. Each new hire, each decision, each promotion, each project embodies the values of the top.

Don't let your hierarchy look like this

What happens when the founder isn’t in the room?

Hiring for Principles and Values

Amazon has one of the hardest interview processes and the entire interview loop has one aim: raise the bar on new hires that already live the same leadership principles and value clarity, in writing. The first is assessed through a series of situation/behavior interview questions aligned around the core leadership principles.

But how do they assess clarity in writing? Easy. Every senior candidate L6 or higher writes a 2-4 page document on either an innovation of theirs or the judgment behind a decision they made as part of the interview process.

This ensures – in theory – every new senior hire to Amazon meets or raises the bar on structuring their prose and writing clearly. Most companies don’t do well with hiring, and fewer rigorously look at the clarity of communication from new hires.

One Mechanism (Process) to Rule Them All

A new project is coming up. Should you write a product brief? Maybe just a small deck with a few slides? What does the exec team need for their review? A few weeks into the project and you likely have several artifacts pitching the idea and selling the vision.

When everyone has their own process...

At Amazon, there’s one document. One mechanism for pitching ideas. And it’s the same doc that your engineers read, that your boss reads, and that her boss reads. Three months into the project? There’s still just one document with additional notes added to it.

How does everyone know how to follow this process?

There are company-wide training events led by passionate volunteers teaching others how to leverage the Working Backwards process. Once you understand how to work backwards, there are additional workshops for how to write better.

Clarity and a Focus On The Customer

Working backwards is about starting with the customer and it’s worked well for Amazon over the years. Yet elsewhere true customer-centricity seems difficult for most businesses. What Amazon created with its culture is one of distributed product thinking. Everyone is taught to ask and answer these five questions:

  • Who is the customer?
  • What is the customer problem or opportunity?
  • What is the most important customer benefit?
  • How do you know what customers need?
  • What does the customer experience look like?

In any other organization, this is the makings of a product brief or PRD.

If it’s not clear yet, every innovation at Amazon is in pursuit of making the lives of customers better. And the path to aligning around what to build is paved with clarity. Innovators forge that clarity due to operating in an environment that prizes it. Each round of feedback levels up the original material.

Bringing It All Home

Lifting a process from another organization – from Spotify’s Agile model to Amazon’s Working Backwards process – requires a deep understanding of the principles behind it and the cultural/incentive structures in place in the environment in which it succeeds.

I won’t judge the copy/paste motion, but doing so without digging deeper is a recipe for failure. And most things will fail if…

  • The CEO/Founders/Leaders don’t deeply care about it
  • Hiring is just-put-a-butt-in-the-seat activity bringing mediocre players into the fold
  • Complexity rules everything around you
  • Innovation is in search of a customer/problem

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