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Amazon & Achievement

Amazon & Achievement

. 6 min read

At this point, I’m sure you will have read the New York Times’ feature piece on Amazon’s work culture. You may have noticed that I was quoted — I had the incredible opportunity to spend several hours on the phone (and sharing a delightful meal) with Jodi Kantor and David Streitfield over the past several months as they built the story. I mostly provided context on whether or not Amazon was The Future Of Work, and provide contrast to traditional organizations.

I, for one, love the piece. It’s a lot fairer than most people give it credit for — and to paraphrase Ezra Klein, what most don’t understand is that Amazon’s detractors and creditors agree on what Amazon’s culture is like. It is that intense. It is that hard. It is that callous and it is that focused. When people work there, they do achieve a lot more than they would elsewhere. Where the two camps disagree is in their normative understanding of Amazon — that is, whether or not what they’re doing is what they should be doing.

In preparation for a few radio interviews this week (BBC, BBC Scotland, and WBUR) I tried to read the article as objectively as possible. Amazon is an incredible company — one of the most successful and important that we’ve got. Their Glassdoor profile is littered with reviews that read like Jodi & David’s story; the characterization of their culture shouldn’t be news to any informed observer. Amazon isn’t easy, but they also realize many of the attributes that I think of when I think of the future of work: a place of incredible achievement; a place of deep commitment to a purpose; a decentralized business, where each unit operates almost autonomously; an aggressive, intentional use of software to gain advantage; open, accessible platforms that allow individuals and corporations to build businesses that reach global scale.

Just to get specific, and provide my own view on the topic, I broke down the piece and pulled out all of the practices that I could find, leaving most of the anecdotes behind.

Anyway. The practices:

  1. Strong leadership principles: This one falls in the camp of “things companies say they do, but actually don’t.” Many companies have “core values” that are mere platitudes, that few employees can recall, and that even fewer actually work by. Not the case at Amazon — probably because they are pointed and disagreeable. That is not to say that they’re bad, per se, but rather that it is possible to have a counter-perspective to their principles. Disagree and commit came under the most scrutiny in the article, as it most directly leads to a culture of “combat.” But it’s hardly rare; it shows up at Intel and in Marxist literature: “Individual discourse, unified action.” But when you contrast this with the experience most have in Corporate America — something like “Agree and resist,” where your colleague agrees with you in the room but stands in the way of your progress after the meeting — I’d say Amazon’s philosophy is a clear upgrade. This will certainly lead to an absolute reduction in momentary good feelings as the frequency of hard conversations goes up. So yes, this will not always be the near-term “enjoyable” way to work, but great teams aren’t built entirely on good feelings.
  2. Frequent quantitative business reviews: Everyone should be doing this. The lack of off-the-top knowledge — or at least readily accessible data — of business fundamentals is A Problem Worth Solving. Guiding teams toward weekly metrics reviews is always one of the most transformative things we can do as outsiders.
  3. Huge aspirations: This is one of the defining characteristics of the work futures that we’re trying to build. Everyone says they want to have big aspirations, but few actually do in practice. Amazon somehow has turned a pretty straightforward, dare-I-say-not-that-interesting job into one of the more compelling employee value propositions out there. Kudos.
  4. Ultra-difficult problems that attract top talent: Outside of Google and probably SpaceX, Tesla, Amazon offers the thing that brilliant, driven technical creatives want most — hard-to-solve problems and bright people to solve them with. So long as they keep running into business and technical problems to solve — which is a certainty based on their scale and ambitions — they’ll keep having folks line up to work there. Worth noting two things: first, the choice between top tech firms may be based on on benefits, but by and large people are aiming at these employers because of the valuable experiences that are created by hard problems; second, by virtue of its category/ies Amazon provides hard business problems for MBA types that many of its peers don’t provide.
  5. Data-driven decisions that are based on customers’ needs: Again, everyone says that they want to make decisions using real data. Few actually do. They don’t have good sources. They don’t have the organizational or individual capacity to parse the data. They’d rather rely on the opinions of senior leaders, either for the sake of egos or job security. Real reasons! Bad reasons.
  6. Bar-raisers: Absolutely a good idea. More companies should put more effort into designing recruiting methods that keep stretching the culture, versus just hiring more of the same.
  7. Ultra-high behavioral expectations and conformity: Essentially, Amazon expects that everyone in the entire company live by the same values, and eventually become almost identical interchangeable pieces of the machine. This has a lot of positive effects on the business (ease of getting things done, clear expectations, high predictability)f, but probably leaves them exposed to lots of negative externalities. For one — low-diversity environments have a history of massive unrecognized problems that grow into catastrophes. For two — and I can’t confirm this because I don’t work there — it reduces the long-term vitality of the culture and as much as many other factors contribute to Amazon being a hard place to work, the pervasive dullness of working with other robots has to make Amazon a hard place to spend a life.
  8. Stack ranking (“Organization Level Review”) + Culling the bottom ranks: The worry for me is not that this puts a pressure on people to perform, but that it leaves the organization open to the chance that they lose a great talent in a team of extraordinarily high-performing individuals, while they keep someone on a less-special team just because they were the best of that bunch. To be clear, though, it’s absolutely possible to motivate people without using the “fear of being fired.”
  9. Anonymous feedback tip lines: Anonymity is a critical tool for whistleblowing and casual surveillance of The Company’s behavior, but maybe isn’t the best way to offer feedback to individuals. In most cases, though, it’s necessary to provide safety in dissent. Bridgewater and Ray Dalio have for many years espoused this radical transparency — they _record_ every single conversation in the office, and tag it to make it trackable so you can find everything anyone ever said about you in person or behind your back. A more humane method, perhaps, would be to encourage people to go straight to the individual for whom they have feedback, and give it directly.
  10. Negative retention tactics: That you’re held at Amazon by a refundable signing and relocation bonus is silly. The other practices are enough to keep the right folks at Amazon for the right amount of time. Netflix’s approach to comp feels most appropriate here: pay top-of-market and leave it at that.

In the end, reading the article felt like reading an article about the experience of being a professional athlete. It’s not something that you can do forever. It will change your life. Your coaches and staff vary between being incredibly supportive and shockingly critical. Your family life will suffer, if you even have a chance to have one. But you have a chance to do something that other humans have never done, and you get a chance in every minute to test your personal limits. That level of competition and pressure — internal, external and personal — will drive some to do things that are downright inhumane. You might be paid very well, but probably won’t…and some of the promises of riches go unfulfilled. Inevitably, you’ll leave that experience with a ton of habits, good and bad, that make your life different from everyone else’s. And the most successful individuals will probably end up being some of the weirdest of the bunch.

The question, then: is that^^ what we want from a workplace? If not, are we okay with achieving less? We probably won’t end up all designing our organizations in Amazon’s mold — it’s just too intense for most — but we should know that what workers want today is achievement. They’ll go through hell to make something important happen. We should absolutely be optimizing for that — it’s our job to make it easy to get hard work done.