There are bad companies, good ones, great ones, and then there are legendary companies. Legendary companies that disrupt, innovate, revolutionize their space. These companies lead, not just in market share, but in the hearts and minds of their customers. They come in all shapes, sizes, and business models. Yet each one can teach us something about how our companies can become legends.
In just under two decades Amazon.com has become in the digital age, what the Walmart was in the analog age. Amazon more than any other company, has defined how we shop online while continuing to innovate and improve its customer experience at a breakneck pace.
Amazon is a legendary company. Books will (if we ever finish our book) be written about the 4 pillars of Amazon’s success. We can go on and on ad nauseum about all the exceptional aspects of Amazon’s business. Instead let us focus on one foundational practice that enables Amazon’s legendary tendencies. You might assume, because of my background, that I might choose to focus on their optimization practices or their data-driven business model. But, while those practices contribute to their performance they are not what makes Amazon legendary.
Amazon relies heavily on the use of narratives to communicate key business directives.
Jeff Bezos is well known for his powerpoint prohibition in executive meetings. And this is not just because most powerpoint presentations are offensively boring. Edward Tufte’s points out that “power corrupts, and powerpoint corrupts absolutely“, because it is really designed around the needs of the presenter, not the others in the room.
The Amazon meeting is narrowly attended and not taken up by a lecture using a PowerPoint deck as a crutch, it becomes a coworking session with the focus on what matters, the audience and customers’ experience. Bezos requires his executives to write a six-page narrative memos, and provides study time during meetings so executives can actually read them.
According to our sources, each memo always includes:
1) The context or question.
2) Approaches to answer the question – by whom, by which method, and their conclusions
3) How is your attempt at answering the question different or the same from previous approaches
4) Now what? – that is, what’s in it for the customer, the company, and how does the answer to the question enable innovation on behalf of the customer?
According to Bezos “They [the narratives] have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.” In narrative format you cannot fake it. The telling of a story makes the missing elements pop out because human beings are attuned to stories and can tell when the story simply isn’t right. You can’t do that in a PowerPoint even if you flesh out the bullets.
In addition to memos, each product manager must write a press release (for their customers) for each new product before work on the product even begins. Writing this out forces them to think about exactly what expectations they are setting.
This approach leads the teams at Amazon to not only think clearly about the business and the product, but because it’s primary focus is customer centricity they think clearly about their customers as well. In every good narrative there is a conflict to be resolved. The story always revolves around the customer first and pays off in the company’s happy endings – solutions, innovation, and happier customers.
Is it any wonder that Amazon provides a legendary customer experience?
By embracing a narrative based approach your company too, can do legendary things. Try it! In our experience (with clients) it improves execution, communications, and testing. Oh, and the second result is a big boost to the bottom line.
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