[This was written in early ’21, and I had posted it as a Notion page. Now consolidating all of these reviews posted elsewhere into this site.]

Published 2021. 286 pages. Read Mar’21.

About the book

The book is written by two (now ex) Amazon old-timers (one of whom was Jeff’s shadow!). It is a good delineation of the management principles + practices that distinguishes Amazon such as

  • ‘working backwards’ from customer benefits
  • single-threaded leadership
  • tenets
  • hiring via a bar-raiser process
  • how they use written docs such as narrartives + pr/faqs (no powerpoint!)
  • single-threaded leadership
  • focusing on controllable input metrics vs outputs

I don’t think there has been one book that details out the Amazon / Jeff Bezos management philosophy in detail. There have been glimpses of how the org works, such as in ‘The Everyday Store’ by Brad Stone, but strangely for a company that is one of the most successful and important companies of our and any era, this is much too little. In that context, this book is a great crack at summarising the Amazon ethos / OS by these two ex-Amazonians.

I speed-read ‘Working Backwards’ recently, and would recommend it for most folks in the startup / venture / tech community especially founders. While it is useful for all founders, I would particularly recommend it for Series A+ founders, post PMF. A lot more of the stuff can be applied (the overwhelming focus at prePMF is on getting the MVP done and then arriving at the GTM playbook; there isnt much useful stuff on that here).

The book is divided into 2 sections:

~ Section A – has chapters on their 14 leadership principles and how they arrived at it (+ ‘mechanisms’ or processes to reinforce these principles), hiring, single-threaded leadership (full ownership of a project or initiative), communicating internally (use of 6-page word docs they call ‘narratives’ not powerpoint) and finally focusing on controllable input metrics, and not output.

~ Section B – a look on how the above led to success in AWS, Prime, Prime Video and Kindle. This is also a fun chronicling of how these products / projects were born and evolved.

I found the following sections / chapters, particularly useful

  • hiring (especially using bar-raisers or interviewees who determine if this individual will enhance the talent quotient)
  • using written narratives instead of powerpoint, and reading how meetings are run there
  • working backwards (via the PR/FAQs document — which starts by imagining a press release announcing the product launch and then working backwards from there to visualize and build the product
  • focuing on input metrics and enablers and not outcomes.

Tech leads will enjoy 2 chapters overall –

  • Organising (#3). There is a good look here at how they restructured their tech org to reduce dependencies
  • AWS (#10). I dont need to say why!

That said, encourage founders to check it out: Dont need to read the entire thing. Pick the chapters you find interesting and dive deep. Alternatively, you can divide it amongst your A-team, and then meet for a 90-min session on what could be applied!


Chapter 1: Building blocks – leadership principles and mechanisms

  • Bezos: Our culture is four things: customer obsession, willingness to think long-term, eagerness to invent and taking pride in operational excellence.
  • 14 leadership principles, enabled and realized through
    • methodologies: practices and processes like
      • bar-raiser process
      • separable teams (single-threaded)
      • written narratives not powerpoint
      • focus on input metrics
      • ‘working backwards’ product development process using PR/FAQs doc
    • mechanisms: organisational processes by which these leadership principles are reinforced
      • annual planning processes (OP1 and OP2)
      • S-Team goals process
      • compensation structure

Chapter 2: Hiring: Amazon’s unique bar-raiser process

  • Bezos: “Hire for missionaries, not mercenaries”
  • Bar-raiser: a senior exec doing the final interview who can veto the hire (usually not done but the threat exists)
  • Presence of bar-raiser increases intentionality of hiring and leads to a lot of thinking in hiring including JD etc.
    • Bar-raisers are in every interview loop
    • Final hiring meeting is chaired by bar-raiser!
    • Bar-raisers get special training in interviewing. They are not paid extra for this!
  • Process works as follows
    • JD by hiring manager / boss of person being hired
    • Resume review
    • Phone screen: 1 hr. Qs are formulated to suss out “examples of past behaviour (Tell me about a time…) that match to Amazon’s leadership principles”
    • In-house interview loop: 5-7 interviews coordinated by the hiring manager
      • Amazon runs a 0.5 day course to all interviewers on how to conduct an interview
      • In the interview process, the interviewers are assessing “how well a candidate’s past behaviour and ways of working map to Amazon’s leadership principles” (of course some may focus on assessing specific functional skills too)
      • Each of these 14 principles are mapped to the interviewers who use a technique called ‘behavioural interviewing’
        • STAR (situation → tasked with → action → results) method use to drill down the replies
    • Written feedback
    • Debrief / hiring meeting
    • Reference check
    • Offer through onboarding

Chapter 3: Organising: Separable, single-threaded leadership

  • Single-threaded leadership: A single person owns an initiative unencumbered by other responsibilities, and heads an autonomous team to deliver its goals. This is a key practice at Amazon.
  • A lot of thinking went into Amazon on how to create a culture that can move fast – they saw that dependencies were the biggest hurdle when it came to speed. Hence an org structure that encouraged creation of smaller teams (2-pizza teams), internal APIs, single-threaded leadership + teams who could move nimbly and achieve more. These mechanisms reduced communication and coordination costs within the organisation. Communication costs are akin to a tax.

Chapter 4: Communicating: Narratives and the six-pager

  • Amazon uses 6-page word docs called Narratives in lieu of powerpoint decks
  • Every 1 hr meeting begins with 20 minutes of silence as attendees read the narratives
  • This has been extensively written about – so i wont go into it again.
  • One interesting element / section in Narratives are Tenets – key assumptions / or a “foundational element of reasoning that led us to make the recommendation. Tenets give the reader an anchor point to evaluate the rest.” Tenets are stated upfront because then the disagreement on tenets can be resolved first before moving on to other sections.
    • In Appendix B in the book, there is a detailed examination of tenets. Tenets per that section are guiding principles that help in decision-making. They help organisations break the tie between two benefits, values, or outcomes when there is a natural tension between them (speed v quality for instance). A famous Amazon tenet is “We dont make money when we sell things. We make money when we help customers make purchase decisions.” (this guides them on leaving negative reviews up etc.)

Chapter 5: Working backwards: Start with the desired customer experience

  • WB starts by defining the customer experience and then working backwards from that point, until the team has clarity on what to build and all aspects of the product design, features and economics.
  • WB is enabled by writing the PR/FAQ document – which writes out a faux PR (press release; typically <1 page) as if the product has been launched, with a FAQ (Frequently Asked Question) section, usually ≤5pages.
  • One advantage of the PR/FAQ is that the Bill of Materials or cost of goods sold and effort needed to arrive at the product can be well-understood and buy-ins can be got from engineering and product teams well in advance.
  • “The primary point of this process is to shift from an internal / company perspective to a customer perspective.”
  • “A common question asked by execs when reviewing a PR is ‘so what?'” If the product doesnt improve customer experience or enhance customer benefit, it is not worth launching.
  • A good FAQ will have both external FAQs (what a customer will ask) and internal FAQs (consumer needs and TAM, Economics, Dependencies, Feasibility etc.)

Chapter 6: Metrics: Manage your inputs, not your outputs

  • Amazon focuses on controllable input metrics, which are the drivers of outputs such as revenue, profits, growth etc.
  • They look at metrics through a weekly business review process (WBR). They created the review and determined metrics via the DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyse, Improve, Control) approach
    • Define what you want to measure – like customer experience or top of funnel widening →Identify the correct controllable input metrics to measure the above
    • Select controllable / actionable input metrics not lagging indicators (like revenue and growth communicated to markets). “Input metrics measure things, that done right, bring about the desired results in your output metrics.”
    • Analyse using the 5 Whys approach pioneered by Toyota. Also use
      • anecdotes / voice of customer
      • CP (contribution profit) exception reports to identify top 10 loss-making
  • Interesting program called Customer Connection; every two years, a corporate employee has to become a customer service agent for 2 years (including Bezos)
    • Customer service agents have an Andon Cord to stop sale of problematic products

Chapters 7-10: covers how Kindle, Prime, Prime Video and AWS came into being.

These chapters show how the lessons of Chapters 1-6 were used in the invention and launch of these four products. No new concept is introduced.