I worked at Amazon from 2002-2009, with a break in the middle for business school. People often ask me what it was like to work there, and why they’ve been so successful.
I argue that their success, as they’ve pursued myriad business and product lines across many verticals and markets, is driven almost entirely by the quality of their thinking.
Here’s what I mean: When you go to a meeting with Jeff Bezos at Amazon, you spend time preparing a document. It could be called a narrative, a 1-pager, or something else–the name doesn’t really matter. The document is an articulation of what you are trying to accomplish and your understanding of what it will take to get there. The document is long, thorough, and written in prose.
When you present to Jeff for an hour, you spend the first 20 minutes while he reads your narrative, making notes in the margins. Everyone else waits. It sounds like a waste of time, except that the following 40 minutes is pure gold. For 40 minutes, you have a strategic discussion where everyone in the room is on the same page, has the same context and access to detail.
I believe that those truly effective meetings, along with Jeff’s intellect, are Amazon’s true competitive advantage. They think better than their competition. Great decision making and execution follow.
While most meetings at Amazon don’t involve Jeff, the pattern is similar. Engaged, thoughtful discussion where the meeting owner has spent time preparing so that you can get everyone’s best thinking.
In stark contrast is a product management internship that I had at Yahoo in 2006. At each meeting, people would barely prepare and would instead bring their laptops. They’d leave the laptops open so they could check email and even send each other IMs — in the meeting! The quality of the thinking was poor and Yahoo’s operating results followed. I couldn’t wait to get back to Amazon.
To this day, I avoid laptops in meetings and encourage presenters to participate as best they can. It’s tough. There’s a lot of pressure to be online and available all the time, much more so even than in 2009. I’m hopeful that by creating a place where distractions like email, social media and Google can be avoided, I can get my team’s best thinking.
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