79) Amazon – work backwards from the customer need

amazon logo

 wēi danger

Where possible we all try to launch something in order to learn, ideally releasing a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) that real customers can react to. But for more complex offers often the MVP takes significant time and effort to develop and becomes diluted as big teams coalesce around it, losing site of the original vision (it’s said a camel is just a horse designed by committee.) Team members tasked with creating new products and services often suffer from “groupthink,” tending to lose the benefits of independent thought, increasingly just agreeing with each other.  Amazon prides itself on launching new products and services continuously – surely its teams lose focus and the organisation is in danger of designing more camels than horses?

 jī opportunity

Amazon does two things that I think radically mitigate this risk:

Rule 1: the two pizza team rule: Amazon never allows one of its teams to grow too big to be fed by two pizzas, they thereby reduce the chance their teams become slow and unfocused.

Rule 2: start with a press-release, internally. In addition, Amazon starts any project “working backwards” from the customer, rather than starting with an idea for a product and trying to bolt customers onto it or a “skills-forward” approach (where people and companies let what they are good at determine their next steps.)

For each new initiative a product manager starts by writing an internal press release announcing the finished product. The target audience for the press release is the new/updated product’s customers, which can be retail customers or internal users of a tool or technology. Internal press releases are centred on the customer problem, how current solutions (internal or external) fail, and how the new product will beat those existing solutions.  If the benefits listed don’t sound appealing to customers, then perhaps they’re not (and shouldn’t be built). Instead, the product manager keeps iterating on the press release until they’ve come up with real benefits. The press-release is often structured as follows:

  • Heading – Name the product in a way the reader (i.e. your target customers) will understand.
  • Sub-Heading – Describe who the market for the product is and what benefit they get. One sentence only underneath the title.
  • Summary – Give a summary of the product and the benefit. Assume the reader will not read anything else so make this paragraph good.
  • Problem – Describe the problem your product solves.
  • Solution – Describe how your product elegantly solves the problem.
  • How to Get Started – Describe how easy it is to get started.
  • Customer Quote – Provide a quote from a hypothetical customer that describes how they experienced the benefit.

Once the project moves into development, the press release is used as a guiding light – if the team finds it’s spending time building things that aren’t in the press release (overbuilding), it asks why. This keeps product development focused on achieving the customer benefits and not building extraneous stuff that dilutes the offer and takes resources to maintain.

TL;DR / How About…

  • Minimising team size for any new endeavour? Implementing a 1 or 2 pizza team rule?
  • Creating a press-release for the idea and displaying it prominently in the workspace, perhaps scheduling a weekly meeting to review and iterate it?

More on working backwards and Amazon’s approach on Quora here