Jeff Bezos and The Lean Startup

I just finished “The Everything Store” about Jeff Bezos and the fascinating rise of Amazon. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Jeff Bezos… All known for their visionary yet autocratic rule that creates huge leaps forward but often with organizational strife, politics, and an inability to scale.

I’m also a fan of the book “The Lean Startup”. The term “Lean” in the book is unfortunate because it gives the impression that it’s about doing more with less. The actual idea is different and much more interesting.

In short… Start with the customer. Don’t just ask them what they want and then go build it. Produce the minimal viable product you can give them to see whether they actually like it. Not minimum as in “it works and 80% of the features are there but it’s beta quality”. But minimum like a web page that describes it with a “buy now” button. Put it out there and pay Google to get it in front of 10,000 people. If 1000 people click you have one problem to solve. If 3 do then you have another. Either way you learn.

These two approaches appear to be in conflict, but they actually work great together. Bezos provides plenty of leadership, but coupled with the philosophy that the data wins. And Lean Startup techniques are a great way to get the required data.

An important part of Amazon is writing product descriptions. In the beginning this was done by a large editorial team. In time, the algorithm team developed an automated alternative. And there was much debate and political wrangling. Bezos dictated not which to choose, but how to resolve the debate. It was resolved Lean Startup style with customer testing. Use both on the same products and see who buys more. The algorithm won and the decision was made.

The two extremes taken together seem like a winning combination. Leadership for things that really matter. Serious Lean product development for the rest.

Middle roads are problematic. Microsoft pushed the style of Gates and Ballmer down through the organization in a vast hierarchy of management. All of them working to emulate their leaders and be little visionaries. This grows rigid and political as the thousands of visionary leaders battle each other for dominance. Distributing and delegating the work of the leader by driving that style down through the organization ordains internal political battles.

In theory that leadership could be cleanly distributed. The sales leader says what customers want. Product management combines that with the overall market and owns the product plan. Engineering has the last word in how it’s done. In reality that’s challenging. Mobile devices always need to be lighter and have a longer battery life. Sales reiterates the obvious the need to do both. Product management tries to figure out the balance based on experience and abstract data, aka personal opinion. And engineering influences with technical reality mixed in with their own beliefs. Is it really not possible to do both at the same time? Or is engineering just not trying, interested, or competent? Meetings, politics, dysfunction.

Similarly, customer-focus without going all the way to Lean Startup ideas leads to product mediocrity and organizational bureaucracy. Lots of middle management and politics. With a little coaxing, customers will say they want all kinds of things. Especially if they are tortured by hours of powerpoint presentations and then asked “so, are you interested in that? Is that where we should be heading”. I don’t remember any customer ever saying to me “oh no, that’s a terrible idea”. That “customer input” is then taken back to the product management organization where it is mixed with executive vision, competing priorities, new product development, engineering capabilities, and much more. Add in countless meetings with all the managers for all the different parts of the organization to gain and keep consensus. And slowly a plan develops, which is then diligently executed and delivered a year later.

Asking customers in 2004 if they wanted a phone with a touch-screen and no buttons would not have worked. That required a visionary leader. Or Amazon choosing low prices vs targeted pricing based on analytics. Those decisions take years to fully play out.

Deciding on the shape of the bevel of the glass? A visionary leader can also answer that question, but customer trial is what scales. Delegating it to a middle management team of industrial design, engineering, and manufacturing needs to be done with guidance for how decisions are made. Management certainly needs to have expertise and lead – you can’t try out every alternative. But for the significant, hotly debated decisions, ask the customer. If you still can’t figure it out, ask your leader.

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