Amazon Works Backwards to Innovate. Here’s How You Can Too.

Amazon started in a garage more than 25 years ago. But the company has grown from its humble beginnings as an online marketplace for books to a global organisation that works to delight customers across market segments as diverse as audio books through Audible and cloud computing with Amazon Web Services (AWS), to groceries with WholeFoods and live video streaming through Twitch. No doubt, a lot has changed during the last two decades, but one thing that has remained constant at Amazon: Customers remain the focus of the business. Amazon listens intently to them and works continuously to invent on their behalf.

Sometimes, customers are citizens that log on to the systems we built in order to attend a class or to pay their taxes. Other times, customers may be coworkers who use systems to either book a meeting room or to extract data for a metrics review meeting. Regardless of our jobs, as builders, we all have customers for whom we invent. The approach Amazon uses to invent is called Working Backwards. It helps anyone with an idea for a customer to clarify their thinking by writing the press release that would be shared as the product’s launch announcement. Working Backwards press releases are set in the future - typically six months to three years, to give teams enough time to design and build the solution but not so far in the future that the Star Trek Replicator starts to feature prominently. The press release provides teams with a way to socialise the idea, solicit critical feedback, and improve the idea—all before anything is built.

As Amazon founder Jeff Bezos explained to employees, “Done correctly, the Working Backwards process is a huge amount of work. It is not designed to be easy; it is designed to save huge amounts of work on the back end and to make sure we’re actually building the right thing.” So, if this is the way Amazon invented AWS, Kindle, and many other products, you might think it would be complex and secretive. It is neither. The Working Backwards process is built around five key questions. Let’s take a deeper look at those question, and help apply this approach to your Big Idea.

1. Who is the customer?

The process begins by developing a deeply empathetic understanding of your customer, and their needs. It is important to be specific and precise when you define your customer because if you cast too wide a net (e.g., all Internet users), it is hard to imagine a solution that would resonate. Some examples of customers might be riders of Singapore busses, administrators of open source databases, or government financial analysts. Once you have selected a customer, write down two to three wants or needs that customer may have. Sometimes, it can be helpful to think of these wants and needs as being goals of your customer, or their jobs to be done.

2. What is the opportunity?

After selecting a customer, and identifying their wants and needs, it is time to explore the challenges they face. What prevents your customer from having their needs met? What could be improved about the process by which wants are satisfied? To help you frame the problem or opportunity, a madlibs-style template can help:

Today   _________________________________ [customer type], 
Have to _________________________________ [description of problem or opportunity],
When    _________________________________ [context / situation where this occurs]. 

Next, you will need to generate potential solutions. As quickly as possible (i.e., in 10 minutes or less), roughly sketch or write down eight ideas, no matter how wild they are.

3. What’s the most important benefit?

Even though you might generate eight fantastic ideas, you will not have the capacity to create all of them now. This step helps you drill down and focus. So, explain the ideas to a friend and pick the best one, which might end up being a combination of some of the others. For the big idea you select, write a sentence or two that describe it. Next, write a sentence or two describing the most important customer benefit. Sometimes, in the midst of all the excitement, teams mistake their own enthusiasm for actually addressing the customer problem. After writing down the most important customer benefit, go back and check that it actually is important to the customer, and that it solves the problem in Step 2.

4. How do you know this is what customers need and want?

Being sure that you are on the right track means listening to signals. By collecting data such as behavioral metrics, qualitative feedback, and subjective metrics you will have data to support your hypothesis that customers have a problem, are looking for a solution, and that the solution looks like the one you are building.

If you do not have the idea yet, make a plan for how you are going to collect it. When you have the data available, you will be able to validate your hypothesis about the customers and the solution before you move forward. And, if your data is suggesting your hypothesis about your customer or problem is not correct, it is a good opportunity to pivot - all without having invested time in building anything.

5. What does the customer experience look like?

Sketching is a frugal and speedy way to communicate to potential customers the way they will experience the solution. As you will see from the sketches below, they begin as low-fidelity sketches that do not take long to create, and can be enhanced with greater resolution as teams move forward.

Amazon’s Working Backwards Process

The last part of step five is to develop a customer quote. When the customer you identify in step one, finally experiences your solution, what might they say? Even though this will be fictional, it should be specific and believable. Use language that your customer is likely to use. Make sure the quote reinforces why a customer cares about what you are announcing.

Call to Action

Having completed the five-step process above, you will have the information you need to write your press release by following the structure below.

  • Headline: A short description of your product that incorporates the customer-centric language (from Step 5).
  • Byline: One sentence describing what is launching and the most important benefit the customer will receive (from Steps 2 and 3)
  • Paragraph 1-3: Explain your product in more detail. Who is the customer? What is the problem or opportunity? How does your solution cleverly solve it? What is different for the customer as a result, and what benefits did they receive? (from Steps 2, 3 and 4).
  • Customer quote: What did the customer have to say about this product? (from Step 5)
  • Leadership and team quote: What did leaders from your business have to say about the launch? How does this integrate with other things that deliver benefit for customers? (new)
  • Call to Action: What are the easy steps a customer can take in order to access and use your solution? (from Step 5).

If you would like to learn more about Working Backwards, you will find some reference links below. If you would like to run a Working Backwards workshop with your team, please reach out to me to take the next steps.