Creating a Culture of Innovation at Amazon

  • Save

Amazon.

It’s doubtful that you’d be here (on the internet) and not know of Amazon.

You probably have an opinion about what it’s like to work there. You’re also probably a patron, and you’ve probably wondered how, despite all the controversy and negative attention Amazon draws, every appendage of Amazon’s business works, and works incredibly well.

Us shoppers have come to expect unrelenting excellence by way of quality, swiftness, and novelty (i.e., innovation). I couldn’t help but wonder – How could any company keep up with that expectation in the long run?

Unlike Amazon, other companies can severely hinder themselves by relying on innovation and then building and promoting a culture that fails to enable new idea development.

Amazon’s entrepreneurial tendencies and its bias toward hiring voracious learners are its cultural engines, and you, too, can have something similar at your company. I’m lucky enough to have it at mine.

A World-Renowned Cultural Force

CEO Jeff Bezos’ sights have been set on greater things (delivery by drone and sub-orbital spaceflight included) since the company’s conception in 1994 as an online bookstore run out of his garage.

Blue Amazon Prime Air delivery drone flies past clouds
  • Save
image courtesy of Forsaken Films on Unsplash

After speaking to Amazon employees, Franklin Foer got the sense that they, “considered the company to be a paradigm — a distinctive approach to making decisions, a set of values, the Jeff Bezos view of the world extended through [its] employees.”

Principles, behavioral models, and beliefs are what help Amazon continually evolve its ability to delight customers in existing and emerging markets, as well as the ones it invents on its own.

Before we discuss how the culture at Amazon facilitates such monumental success and how you can apply what it does right to enhance your own team’s culture, let’s define some terms.

Definitions

Companies with strong entrepreneurial orientation (EO) have systems that enable employees to identify opportunities, then create and innovate to capitalize on them.

These companies succeed in attracting the types of employees that take initiative on new, often risky opportunities that could later become customer- and shareholder-delighting innovations.

Lumpkin and Dess offer Five Dimensions of EO in their article for the AOM:

Autonomy – the capacity to bring an idea or vision from inception through to completion and the responsibility to own the results.

Innovativeness – a departure from normal practices or existing technologies and an approach toward state-of-the-art ones with ideas, experimentation, and creative processes.

Risk-taking – the willingness to make large resource commitments for ventures that have a chance of costly failure (and lucrative reward).

Proactiveness – the ability to anticipate and pursue new opportunities and participate in emerging markets; to shape market environments rather than react to them.

Competitive Aggressiveness – the act of maneuvering your company to outperform competitors; a behavioral state of responsiveness.

Amazon has such a strong EO, one that enables its employees to learn, innovate, and succeed in a constantly changing, intense, and often resource-constrained environment. So, I want to break down Amazon’s culture through the lens of these Five Dimensions.

The Five Dimensions of EO at Amazon

Autonomy

Solopreneurs are, by definition, autonomous. Employees and teams in companies benefit from that same sensation of self-directedness in the things they do and learn at work.

Employees in companies with strong EO pursue ideas and make critical decisions on their own. Save for “Customer Obsession,” “Ownership” is the most permeating of all 16 of Amazon’s Leadership Principles. “Ownership” reminds employees to adopt a sense of autonomy over every part of their job, from innovative idea-gen and bootstrapping to choosing what to learn.

Man working alone at his desk in front of a window with a view out of a high-rise apartment.
  • Save
image courtesy of Al ghazali on Unsplash

In addition to its robust learning infrastructure and upskilling programs, Amazon makes it easy for employees to transfer to different teams and autonomously develop skills they deem relevant to their own careers.

The “Just Do It” award involves Jeff Bezos presenting a Nike shoe to an employee who spotted and deftly improved upon an issue that greatly improved customer experience. This gesture, along with many others, rewards the autonomous art of taking care of problems.

~

If you’d like to promote autonomy for your employees the way Amazon does, start by considering flattening traditional hierarchies of reporting. Be warned though. While this mitigates the headaches that come with decision-making approval, this alone isn’t enough.

Grant employees autonomy and enable them to exercise it.

You can give “champion” employees a certain level of immunity from restrictions and resource constraints to lead by example. It’s these champions that play the most entrepreneurial roles by going to great lengths to support others and encourage autonomy at every level.

When it comes to autonomy and learning, observe how your employees learn best, then make it easy for them to seek knowledge on their own. If you want to learn more about how we achieve this at Curious Lion, you can do so here.

At the end of the day, autonomy helps employees exercise their innovative potential, make critical decisions, adapt to challenges, and learn things that will help them grow. What does that mean for you? You need to trust that you’ve put the right people in the right places and that they will carry the torch of innovation as proudly as you do.

Innovativeness

I’m sure you hear this word all the time, but what does it actually mean?

It’s the inspired mental space where every product you never knew you needed comes from. Amazon’s metamorphoses over the years are evidence of innovation ingrained into culture.

Bezos’ philosophy has always been “Grow Big Fast.” From delivery-by-drone to AI stock management – innovativeness is the force behind Amazon’s rampant and omnidirectional growth.

Crumpled paper and paper airplane on navy background
  • Save
image courtesy of Matt Ridley on Unsplash

At Amazon, innovations are birthed by people who work closely with the products and services. In the spirit of “Customer Obsession” – Amazon’s cardinal Leadership Principle – entrepreneurial employees utilize keen eyes to detect dissatisfaction and swift hands to deliver innovative solutions.

Amazon has plenty of ways for finding and keeping those sorts of employees with beginner’s mindsets, who are eager to learn new things and exercise their passion for innovation.

Amazon’s Bar Raiser program ensures top-quality hires by setting the aspiration for every hire to be better than half of all employees at that level. Tenured employees, ones successful in identifying strong candidates, become Bar Raisers, who exist outside of the hiring managers’ chain of command, and whose agreement to hire any candidate is mandatory.

Innovativeness is Amazon’s backbone, and it grows stronger by finding and securing great employees.

~

Employees share useful information with one another all the time. The information being passed around your company right now is fuel for innovative fire; customer insights, comments about internal inefficiencies, or nonsequitur ideas are raw materials for innovation.

If innovation is what you’re striving for, keep a lookout for employees that exemplify your company’s innovative needs. Hire people with an insatiable appetite for learning. And when you do, find ways to decipher and distribute the tacit knowledge they share with each other to everyone that needs it. This is how Amazon sustains innovativeness, and how you can, too.

Risk-taking

Are you willing to take a gamble? Because that’s exactly what risk-taking is.

It includes things like incurring debt, investing in unexplored tech, or making big resource commitments in exchange for the opportunity of high return.

Amazon’s propensity for risk signals its employees to act entrepreneurially – to use their autonomy and innovativeness – to remain the world’s most customer-centric company.

Further down the Leadership Principles list I mentioned earlier, you’ll find “Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit.” This one seems to be a more combative callback to autonomy; consider instead how these principles encourage risk-taking. In an environment so reliant upon new ideas coalescing into solutions, this principle prescribes confidence for employees to commit to rewarding but risky ventures.

Television on stand displays Amazon Prime Video logo on white background, blue backlight.
  • Save
image courtesy of Thibault Penin on Unsplash

It was certainly a risk for Amazon to try its hand at Hollywood with Amazon Prime Video; but as we’re all aware, the company is no stranger to innovative risks with sizable payouts.

~

The word ‘risk’ sparks anxiety in many of us. It’s a muscle in need of exercising, to be able to feel comfortable with great uncertainty and the possibility of outright failure. If you want to encourage a risk-taking culture, you need to have outspoken faith in your employees to make the right decisions. Innovators benefit from having the support of teammates and superiors to take calculated risks in the name of long-term gain and customer satisfaction.

This, paired with the autonomy that instills confidence in employees to truly own their roles, and believing in your employees’ capabilities, will shower your team with outsized rewards for the innovative risks they take.

Risks don’t always pay off, but sometimes … they do. A hallmark of innovation is the courage to take the plunge, to be willing to own and learn from mistakes and get stronger because of them.

Proactiveness

A famous example of proactiveness at Amazon is the question mark email.

Customers send Jeff Bezos direct feedback all the time. And he reads their messages. If something catches his eye, he’ll forward the email to whomever he sees fit to address the feedback and add a single ‘?’ to the message.

Rumor has it, the office erupts in a frenzy to address the issue right away.

You English majors out there might be saying, this sounds purely reactive. Technically, you’re right. But think of the advantages Amazon creates for itself by understanding customer needs at such a granular level, then innovating to satisfy beyond expectation. That’s surely a proactive approach.

A long-exposure photo of red and white lights waved in a 'question mark in a box' shape at the end of a tunnel
  • Save
image courtesy of Emily Morter on Unsplash

A simple ‘?’ inspires curiosity and impassioned problem-solving from the top all the way down. Bezos tells everyone to question everything, to anticipate customers’ needs: to be proactive.

Amazon has a remarkable ability to seize opportunities and create its own. Here are two of the many ways Amazon proactively introduces employees to the principles and procedures at work:

The “Escape Velocity” onboarding learning experience helps externally hired VPs to quickly adopt Amazon’s core values and assimilate to its fast-paced entrepreneurial culture.

For all employees, a state-of-the-art internal wiki provides easy access to the most useful learning material and thought leadership so that Amazonians can get a grasp of how things are to be done from the very first day of employment.

~

From tip to tail, Amazon sets itself up to advance its employees and solve problems as soon as they arise, or better yet, innovate to make them disappear before anyone notices.

If you want to follow Amazon’s example, encourage your employees to put themselves in your customers’ shoes. Enable them to be proactive in seeking opportunities to get ahead in your company’s area of expertise. If they need to bridge a knowledge gap to get a job done effectively, lay out the resources for them to be proactive with their own learning.

Give them the tools they need to work at their best.

Competitive Aggressiveness

Let’s return to Amazon’s number one principle, “Customer Obsession,” and the subtext for it: Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.

You’ll find this sort of language all over Amazon’s website.

What you need to remember is, playing fields are level in the digital age. Competitors are well-equipped to assemble and launch offerings to customers that might better suit their needs.

To stay a step (or several) ahead of competitors, Amazon puts customers under the microscope, striving to earn and keep their trust with every interaction. What this truly takes is a “culture of customer-centric innovation, that can proactively invent on customers’ behalf.”

Amazon has built a flywheel for success around eternal customer needs like price, selection, and convenience:

Amazon's flywheel of growth
  • Save
image courtesy of AWS Executive Insights

They have done so by turning their sights inwardly. They obsess over the customer experience, which generates more traffic, which attracts more third-party sellers, which broadens selection and reach, which further improves customer experience. And they’re innovating all the while.

~

No matter what competitors do, Amazon’s response will always be to double down on delighting the customer. To do the same, you need to strive to gain deep-seated trust from your customers so your employees can continue to do what they do best when the market throws obstacles at them. The right dose of customer obsession will help kickstart your own flywheel.

Conclusion

This article wasn’t meant to change your mind about Amazon. It was meant to shed light on the lengths a company as relentlessly successful as Amazon goes to, to weave innovation into the fabric of its culture.

And now, it garners more product searches than Google, owns a massive share of the cloud-computing industry, conducts forty-two percent of all book sales worldwide, and delivers your toiletries at breakneck speeds.

There’s no denying that its entrepreneurial culture plays a massive role in enabling its employees to deliver upon the mission to be Earth’s most customer-centric company.

Amazon has its eyes fixed on the long-term, with customers at the absolute center of every consideration, with learning as an imperative, and with a boldness to use innovation as the tool for progress.

If you want entrepreneurship and learning to turn the gears for your company’s culture, doing the following will go a long way:

  • Provide your employees with accessible paths toward autonomy.
  • Create spaces for creative innovation to thrive and be celebrated.
  • Instill confidence in your employees to take strategic risks with ideas.
  • Engage often with current events in your market and in your customers’ lives; be proactive in exploiting any new opportunities that you may find.
  • Understand your place among your competition, be determined to make customer-centricity your competitive mantra, and have your employees live by it.

In the words of Jeff Bezos himself – “There’s no bad time to innovate.”

Why not start creating your innovation culture today?

0 Shares
Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap