The most agile company in the world — that doesn’t call itself agile?
It can be easy to get caught up in frameworks and methodologies, and the method of implementation. However, we should always remember when driving agile change that its the culture that matters — changing an organisation to think in a different way. It may not call itself agile, but I cannot think of a better example of this than Amazon.
Rarely has a company been able to maintain such a cohesive culture as it grows, particularly impressive given its enormous scale of employing 1.6 million people around the world in 2021. Key to this has been the efforts of former CEO Jeff Bezos to shape it over the last two decades, and ensure the culture lived on beyond his tenure. Amazon’s hiring still focusses heavily on ensuring alignment with the Amazon principles. If you’ve never read them, I suggest you leave this newsletter and read them right now. They are at the core of the Amazon way of doing things.
What are the core parts of the Amazon culture that typify agile?
Amazon is obsessed with the customer. Whilst it may seem that Amazon set out strategically to create a number of huge businesses that would be extremely profitable, Amazon view all of them as being as a result of this customer obsession. AWS was the result of needing to meet the requirements for the Amazon website to always be lightning fast and have great availability for customers. It’s logistic expertise, which is the basis of Amazon marketplace, came from the desire to deliver to customers faster, not wanting to build a logistics business. Everything starts with the customer.
They think about the customer on the micro and macro level. At the micro level, they think about the customer in planning decisions as a single person, and care about feedback and complaints from individual customers. Jeff Bezos would read customer feedback and send a forward to the relevant department with one character — ‘?’, causing utter panic — but a pretty strong reminder to think about the customer and care about feedback. At the macro level, they use metrics to track the customer behaviour in aggregate and check progress. Data is at the heart of decision making.
Working with the customer over contract negotiation is at the centre of the agile manifesto. Being reactive and responsive to customer desires typifies what it means to be agile. Amazon show the clearest real-world example of how to be extremely customer focussed and how you can bring the customer into the process.
Two pizza teams and ownership
At scale, process and bureaucracy can slow progress in companies to a snail’s pace. How have Amazon sought to fix this? They have retained the approach of having small, autonomous teams. This is typified by their famous two pizza rule — that teams must be small enough to be able to be fed by two pizzas. This keeps them nimble.
This is partnered with a second principle of leaders being owners. The leaders are treated like entrepreneurs for their area. They are given the autonomy to act in the best interest of their area, and most importantly, they do not have to ask for approval. This helps the team move fast with the customer in mind.
How does this relate to agile? Individuals and interactions over processes and tools is a key principle in the agile manifesto. This focus on autonomous teams typifies putting the trust in a decentralised team over layers of approval and process to make decisions. The challenge remains how to ensure co-ordination for cross team initiatives without introducing process..
But… follow a plan over changing (within bounds).
However, there is a key way that Amazon goes directly against the agile methodology. In general, we think of agile iterating on a product and changing the backlog every sprint in response to customer feedback. Despite their customer obsession, Amazon does not work in this way.
In ‘Working Backwards’, Bill Carr and Colin Bryar describe the alternative approach that Amazon take of designing first, being slow and meticulous, before delivering in a fast and iterative way. In fact, Jeff Bezos had the nickname Chief Slowdown Officer for stopping teams who have jumped too quickly to coding. Instead, its required for a team to understand the customer problem by defining an imagined press release before going into development. Once this is in place and the team are crystal clear on what they are doing (which may take weeks or months), the team then develop very fast.
This represents an interesting departure from standard agile thinking. It separates design and delivery, ensuring that customer value is at the centre of what is being delivered.
Amazon is agile — whether they call themselves or not. They are a perfect company to study some of the practical ways of implementing agile culture. Like all good agile practitioners, we should steal all the ideas we can.