Working Backwards:

Amazon's Culture of Innovation

: My notes

Satish Madhira

CEO and Co-founder

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Heading 1

Heading 2

Heading 3

Heading 4

Heading 5
Heading 6

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur.

Block quote

Ordered list

  1. Item 1
  2. Item 2
  3. Item 3

Unordered list

  • Item A
  • Item B
  • Item C
Text link

Bold text




"Done correctly, working backwards is a huge amount of work. But it saves you even more work later. The Working Backwards Process is not designed to be easy, it is designed to save huge amount of work on the backend, and to make sure we are building the right thing." - Jeff Bezos

What is this about?

Hate Amazon or love it, you will be hard pressed to deny that it has delivered on disparate business models, diverse markets, customer segments, channels. If you are an entrepreneur or Product Manager you may have most likely heard of Amazon's "Working Backwards" approach. Apparently Amazon institutionalized this approach to greenlight its innovation initiatives.

When I got a chance to attend a workshop by an insider(Richard Halkett) at the lean startup conference, I did not want to miss it.

I tried to refer to my notes to come up with a summary in this post. It is hard to replicate the message of the original messenger, my views and biases may have slipped in.

The Session breakup

The session duration was 90 minutes. A short booklet was provided. Peer reviews kept the topic focussed with constructive criticism.

Working Backwards the main artifacts: Three short documents - Focus on outcome versus output

The motivation of drafting a mock press release is to focus on the customer, the problem, why existing solutions fail and why what you are doing will blow others away. These documents get refined and iterated. The language of the release should not involve geek-speak. The press release should pass the Oprah Speak Test - imagine listening to Oprah trying to explain it to her audience. While it appears you are starting with Press release, the real process starts with a sort of customer discovery. The big idea is that it is easier to iterate over these artifacts versus the product itself.

The session mainly focussed on the Press release. FAQ is the outcome of a blown up set of answers based on reviews you are getting on top of the press release document.

Some background to technique used: Crazy Eights

Crazy Eights is a technique used in UX design sprints extensively. If you are an entrepreneur, product manager or designer you may have used this. The main motivation for crazy eights is:

1. Focus on quantity (not quality).

2. Time box. The human brain is a tricky beast, it procrastinates especially when there is any planning, visualization activity. The brain's limbic system gets into a tug of war with the pre-frontal cortex. Without digressing too much, time can be a force-function in such activities.

You can google on Crazy Eights but I sketched out a brief summary for you to understand the technique since it is used extensively here.

Fig: Crazy Eights in 5 simple steps

The main elements of Working backwards

1. Start with the customer & problem (Discovery do it with Crazy Eights)

2. Ideate around solutions(Crazy Eights)

3. Pick the best solution that solves the most important problem(Prioritize)

4. Draft the press release(Time box it around 4 minutes)

5. Get it reviewed, critiqued

6. Use the critique to come up with FAQ

Start with the customer :The 5 customer questions

1. Who is the customer?

2. What is the customer problem or opportunity?

3. What is the most important customer benefit?

4. How do you know what customers want?

5. What does the customer experience look like?

The best way to do this is through a customer discovery. Many early stage ideas have several assumptions baked in, that's the nature of any innovation. The question, "How do you know what customers want?" is looking for evidence that those assumptions are right.

Who is the customer?

Start working backwards to defining the customer. You should get as specific as possible. Time box and force yourself to write 5 defining characteristics of the customer. Specificity on context is important.

For UX designers this exercise sounds similar to persona definitions - it is not. The goal is simply to get customer & problem centric when you start.

Write down 2-3 key needs/wants the customer has before you start ideating the solutions

Pick those top 2-3 needs or wants from the 8. Once you have a reasonable understanding of Customer Problem & Opportunity, the next step is to actually diverge and generate ideas

Exercise: Generate ideas

The goal is to generate 8 breakthrough ideas in 8 minutes- do it with Crazy Eights. Do not worry of being silly and audacious here. Think big. You are expected to now go silly and diverge.

Divergence to Convergence: Hunker down the big idea now

The question is now to force yourself to pick one(or two?) ideas from the 8. The blueprint we were asked to follow were based on answers to the fill in the blanks:

1. The Big Idea is ______________

2. The most important benefit to the customer is ____________

Draft The Press Release

The press release must have the following:

1. Customer quote : The quote has to be realistic, specific and credible depicting the outcome/benefit

2. Idea Summary: The idea summary should depict the 2-3 wants/needs that you are solving from the customer perspective

3. Headline: The headline of the press release should be compelling. After going through the entire session I felt the headline should be focussed on the customer. Too often we start talking of the product, company or solution.

There is more in real life to press releases, but for starters this is pretty good especially since the goal is to create an artifact to review and align. Focus on the customer benefits and put yourself in customer shoes.

Review of the press release:

You are then required to get the press release reviewed. Based on the questions you get, you move on to building FAQs, then the visuals etc.

Putting it all Together

I put up a graphic cheat sheet for my personal future reference. Hope it helps you as well:

Fig: Working backwards in one sheet

Some of the people who read this article asked for a downloadable cheat sheet. Here it is: Working Backwards cheat sheet (PDF format). I watermarked it with a link to this narrative, if you want the source files to change for your internal use send me a message and I can send it over to you.

Key Takeaways and Lessons for me

1. Time boxing is super efficient(can't get over it). 8 minutes is all it takes to move things forward.

2. Too often , companies(especially larger ones) worry about scale early in the process. Often building systems and technology with no evidence that someone wants. Technology teams start focussing on what they are best at in their previous avatars - build scalable, secure systems and components. This is ok when it comes to extensions to products or displacement products - not disruptive innovation. The working backwards process forces everyone to focus on the outcome. I have seen demo scripts being used in a similar to focus teams on customer outcomes. It is the same principle, work backwards - focus on the customer, the problem and evidence that you have the right thing to build.

Got an idea?

Together, we’ll build it into a great product

Follow us on

Dallas, USA

London, UK

Waterloo, Canada

Hyderabad, India

©2024 Zemoso Technologies. All rights reserved.