/ business

Bezos Letter 2018

The letter to shareowners this year has a lot of really good lessons in it for teams and companies.

The theme this year is about high standards. There are a couple of lessons that just about everyone could and should internalize here.

High standards are contagious. Bring a new person onto a high standards team, and they’ll quickly adapt. The opposite is also true. If low standards prevail, those too will quickly spread.

This is absolutely true. I've been lucky enough to work on a couple of high standards teams, and when you get dropped in it might be scary, but high standards teams also tend to be serious about helping their new teammates succeed, and in a company with good hiring practices your odds are pretty good that you do have what it takes to add something.

It does go beyond the team as well. Some companies are set up to enable high standards teams and some will actually work to prevent them from emerging, but people are great at adapting to the practices around them.

What do you need to achieve high standards in a particular domain area? First, you have to be able to recognize what good looks like in that domain.

Domain specific recognition of what good looks like is an important concept. While at HBO I took a lot of comfort from the idea that there were people who really understood, deep down, what good and great looked like, felt like. I thought that would make it easier to draw a parallel to an unfamiliar (to them) domain. I can't tell you if it made it easier or harder, but I can tell you that the openness to recognize that "your standards are low or non-existent"[1] is in fact critical.

What do you need to achieve high standards in a particular domain area? First, you have to be able to recognize what good looks like in that domain. Second, you must have realistic expectations for how hard it should be (how much work it will take) to achieve that result - the scope.

There it is, in one paragraph that people will likely ignore in favor of reading about handstands. To see one of the richest men in the world articulate both halves of this critical concept is deeply valuable. Connecting standards to realistic expectations around difficulty is in my experience a connection not made in the eyes of far too many leaders. Doing something great at a high level of quality is almost always hard. If you can't visualize just how hard, your expectations may be wrong. This concept works at individual, team and company scale.

I've never worked at Amazon, though I know people who have. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that one element of a high quality narrative is that it brings the idea, the high standards, the realistic expectations and the scope all together. The memo becomes a record of the team's thinking at a very high information density. Everyone who reads the memo[2] is caught up. Bill Gates would often request papers from teams he was interested in to take on his think weeks and use them to get caught up. It's a great way to get large groups to the same starting point as a team for relatively low cost.

The other important thing about this that isn't really mentioned in the annual letter is that in narrative writing there is nowhere to hide. It's either in there or it isn't. Forcing this kind of writing over powerpoint, presentations, etc. makes it clear where people have or haven't thought and understood the problem space.

Meetings where people aren't caught up, or where the thinking isn't complete tend to reinforce what's already there or hide the gaps in thinking. You can't get to the high-quality discussion, and instead add more momentum to something that may not have enough substance to it. Elon Musk has some recent comments on meetings at the bottom of his recent production memo which are great when the CEO tells you it's ok, but most people would find hard to put into practice in a company without that kind of support.

More subtle: a culture of high standards is protective of all the "invisible" but crucial work that goes on in every company. I'm talking about the work that no one sees. The work that gets done when no one is watching. In a high standards culture, doing that work well is its own reward - it's part of what it means to be a professional.

This is a nice little add on to the viewpoint. That protection is so valuable in technology and other fast shifting spaces. In many companies I've seen that work isn't just invisible, it is actually openly derided. Engineers are seldom able to talk about the more complex technical debt, refactoring and fragility of some systems to non-technical management. You should be watching for these "invisible but crucial" tasks that aren't as visible but keep the machine running smoothly, these are the things that will reach out and strangle you as your try and leap ahead.


  1. When I started Amazon, I had high standards on inventing, on customer care, and (thankfully) on hiring. But I didn’t have high standards on operational process: how to keep fixed problems fixed, how to eliminate defects at the root, how to inspect processes, and much more. I had to learn and develop high standards on all of that (my colleagues were my tutors).
    Understanding this point is important because it keeps you humble. You can consider yourself a person of high standards in general and still have debilitating blind spots. There can be whole arenas of endeavor where you may not even know that your standards are low or non-existent, and certainly not world class. It’s critical to be open to that likelihood. -- Bezos 2018 ↩︎

  2. We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon. Instead, we write narratively structured six-page memos. We silently read one at the beginning of each meeting in a kind of “study hall.” Not surprisingly, the quality of these memos varies widely. Some have the clarity of angels singing. They are brilliant and thoughtful and set up the meeting for high-quality discussion. Sometimes they come in at the other end of the spectrum. ↩︎