Power Players

Ex-Amazon manager: Jeff Bezos is 'obsessed' with this decision-making style—'it's his key to success'

Jeff Bezos announces Blue Moon, a lunar landing vehicle for the Moon, during a Blue Origin event in Washington, DC, May 9, 2019.
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images

Success at work — and in life — requires exceptional decision-making skills, especially when time is a factor.

But this isn't an easy skill to master. There never seems to be enough time, resources, or attention at our disposal to make smart decisions, so we jump to conclusions based on what we have, and then move ahead. We use biases to turn stories into decisions in the moment.

There's a major downside to this tendency, however, because the quick reactions and decisions we jump to can often be unfair, self-serving and counterproductive.

At Amazon, speed matters

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is famous for giving unconventional, controversial, and yet somehow extremely practical advice. He's particularly obsessed with constraints on time and resources as they relate to decision-making.

At Amazon, where I previously worked at for more than nine years, a "bias for action" is listed as one of the e-commerce giant's 14 principles of leadership.

The company defines this principle on its website: " Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk-taking."

In his 2016 annual letter to shareholders, Bezos expanded on this idea by elaborating on the operational differences between "Day 1 companies" (his name for companies that are always operating with a beginner's mindset, which is his preference) and "Day 2 companies" (companies that think they've already figured everything out).

"I work in an Amazon building named Day 1, and when I moved buildings, I took the name with me," he wrote. "Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1 [at Amazon]."

This kind of thinking is key to Bezos' success — and it's what makes Amazon so unstoppable.

High-velocity decision-making

Day 2 companies make high-quality decisions, but they make high-quality decisions slowly. To keep the energy and dynamism of Day 1 (and stave off Day 2), Bezos makes high-quality, high-velocity decisions.

Here are the billionaire's rules for making high-quality, high-velocity decisions:

  1. Never use a one-size-fits-all decision-making process. Many decisions are reversible, two-way doors. Those decisions can use a light-weight process.
  2. Most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you're probably being slow. If you're good at course correcting, being wrong may be less costly than you think, whereas being slow is going to be expensive.
  3. Using the phrase "disagree and commit" will save you a lot of time. If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there's no consensus, it's helpful to say, "Look, I know we disagree on this, but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?" By the time you're at this point, no one can know the answer for sure, and you'll probably get a quick yes.
  4. Recognize true misalignment issues early and escalate them immediately. Teams sometimes have different objectives and fundamentally different views. They simply aren't aligned — and no amount of discussion, no number of meetings will resolve that deep misalignment. Without escalation, the default dispute resolution mechanism for this scenario is exhaustion. Whoever has more stamina carries the decision.

'Move fast and break things'

As I stressed earlier, there's never enough time to consider all information and to convince every person of every decision, so don't even try.

When you're a large company like Amazon and hiring tens of thousands of people every year (which works out to hundreds per day), the time constraint is real and should be considered.

Facebook's motto during its early days was, "Move fast and break things." Another common motto in Silicon Valley is "Fake it till you make it." Yet another is "Fail fast."

These sayings are all attempts at reinforcing a bias for action, because it's better than the alternative of hesitating and thereby guaranteeing that a decision will be late — without much improving its chances of being right.

It's not just Amazon and Facebook that have adopted this attitude toward decision-making. It's part of our culture and part of our value system.

To develop honest bias when it comes to acknowledging a need to act in uncertainty, it's best to take Bezos' advice and admit there's a chance you may need to turn around and head back if you find out your decision was wrong.

Buster Benson is an entrepreneur and CEO of 750words.com. Formerly, he was a product manager at Amazon, Twitter, Slack and Patreon. "Why Are We Yelling?: The Art of Productive Disagreement" is his first book.

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*This is an adapted excerpt from "Why Are We Yelling?: The Art of Productive Disagreement" by Buster Benson, to be published on November 19th, 2019 by Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. © 2019 by Buster Benson.

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