At Amazon, Output Matters more than Input

Nick Dimitrov

Nick Dimitrov

15 November, 2018

Input is Merely Table-stakes

Now, you might ask, "Doesn't the above statement contradict with one of Jeff Bezos's better-publicized descriptions of Amazon's culture?" In 1997, he claimed that: "You can work long, hard, or smart, but at you can't choose two out of three." It's not my intent to double-guess Bezos (he is a far better professionalist than I ever will be,) but my five years at Amazon have taught me that input is merely table-stakes.

Amazon views input as a means to an end; an end, which is invariably defined by your output. This insistence on output has helped made Amazon a remarkably apolitical company for its size. It doesn't matter if you leave your desk after your boss does. There is no "boys' club" to join, either. It doesn't matter if you schedule yor Outlook client to send emails at late nights or on weekends. What matters is output. The better your output (by the end of the year,) the more stock you would receive. It is that simple.

Output must Happen both in the Short-run and the Long-run

Another core distinction of how Amazon views output is that output must happen both in the short-run and the long-run. Short-term output means achieving quick wins. It means making your presence immediately felt, with a string of iterative improvements that add instant value. As a New Hire Orientation Host, I would tell new Amazonians, on their first day, that they are already late. They are likely behind on some deadline that their team had prepared, even before the new hire had joined the company. In other words, achieving quick output, and testing it, and building on it, is an indelible part of the Amazon cultural fabric.

On the other hand, long-term output is just as important. Amazon loves clean-sheet innovation (even if about 90% of Amazon's inventions tend to be quick and iterative.) Clean-sheet innovation is the type where you Think Big and innovate on behalf of customers, over the long run. Jeff Bezos distills this point in the following statement, "Amazon is willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time. Amazon is stubborn on vision and flexible on details."

Amazon constantly pushes you for long-term results without punishing you for failing. Failing while shooting for the moon is quite acceptable actually, as long as you can demonstrate how you have evolved your initial hypothesis and applied these learnings to pursue new discoveries.

Output Often Happens Without a Roadmap or a Safety net

An additional dimension, here, is that in time, you become comfortable with delivering output without a roadmap or a safety net. Unlike your colleagues at other well-resourced companies, you don't lean on proxies or second-hand knowledge. What I'm referring to, are things like consultants, or a subscription to The Wall Street Journal, or a LexisNexis account, etc. At Amazon, you fully define the path of how best to achieve output and arrive at the final destination.

Throughout that process, you lean heavily on internal data and customer anecdotes. You also invent other frugal and unusual methods to get data. As a result, you become the ultimate subject-matter expert who doesn't passively wait for your superiors to make a decision. You submit a firm recommendation, asking leadership for the resources required to make the recommendation happen. You also answer leadership's questions to get them on board or, conversely, to help them decide against your recommendation. In the end, what gives you license to display such extreme Ownership is knowing your first-hand behavioral data cold, and knowing your customer anecdotes.

In other words, the smartest voice in the room doesn't belong to the most senior VP. The smartest is she who knows the data the best and has delivered the most output. And that very approach is one of the foundational cultural peculiarities (we will unpack the Amazonian meaning of the word 'peculiar' in a separate post) that make Amazon such a special place.

So, if Amazon's focus on output over input, sounds like a culture you'd want to be a part of, you should consider enrolling in "The Essential Package: The Essential Course to Prepare for the Amazon Interview," to learn how to interview with Amazon, and practice what it's like to answer real Amazon interview questions.

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