“Many companies make guesses or inferences about what their customers want. They imagine, or have hunches or feelings. Unfortunately, this increases the odds of being wrong. If you want to be customer- centric, or even customer-obsessed, you need to move from imagining to knowing. This requires the team to spend time getting to know their customer, and ﬁnding out what delights them and what pain points they have.”Amazon white paper, Building A Cloud Operating Model, July 22 2020
What is the Amazon Working Backwards method?
The Amazon Working Backwards method is a customer-centric process to vet needs and concepts before the creation of products or services. It involves imagining that the product or service is about to launch, writing a press release for it, and going backwards from there.
Hustle Badger template for PR/FAQs: Google Doc | Notion
The team proposing an idea for a product or service imagines that they are one week before launch. In order to execute the Amazon Working backwards Process, they then
- Craft a press release describing the need and the product
- Craft a frequently asked questions (FAQs) document which contains
- External FAQs (questions they might receive from future customers)
- Internal FAQs (questions they might receive from adjacent teams, different functional stakeholders and so on).
The documents are then reviewed by a team of relevant stakeholders and management, iterated upon, and hopefully greenlit for development. The internal shorthand for the Amazon Working Backwards Process is PR/FAQ.
In order to write the PR (press release) and FAQs the product team is forced to start with the customer. The key strengths of the process in terms of product development are in identifying whether there is a large enough customer base for the proposed product, with a sufficiently large enough need (is this a big problem?). In doing so, wasted time and effort is avoided.
Having written the press release & internal and external FAQs for the product then bring it to a review meeting where it’s critiqued by leadership and other relevant stakeholders. It has to pass this process before it can go into development. The other key strength of this process is cultural: by setting in place a process where teams can make proposals, are pushed to frame their proposals robustly and are supported and encouraged to do so by management it creates an effective breeding ground for genuine ‘Customer Obsession’ (Amazon leadership principle number 1).
The world outside Amazon discovered this process when Ian McAllister, a Director of Product at Amazon (and now at Uber), answered a question on Quora.
What’s the point of the Amazon Working Backwards method?
The Amazon Working Backwards process helps teams clarify their thinking, refine the proposition, truly understand the customer, act efficiently and unemotionally. It stops things being built which are a waste of time, not needed now or poorly thought through.
By writing the press release they can see:
- Is it exciting?
- Is it a big opportunity?
- Does it take away pain and make things easier and better?
- Does it solve a need for a customer segment in a compelling enough way that they’ll adopt it?
- Do all aspects of the product or service make sense?
- Does it cause any conflicts internally?
- Is it possible to do?
- How will x y z obstacle be solved?
- Does it make sense to do, and does it make sense to do it now?
‘My rule of thumb is that if the press release is hard to write, then the product is probably going to suck. Keep working at it until the outline for each paragraph flows.’Ian McAllister, on Quora, writing about the Amazon Working Backwards process
Once a product team has passed the threshold of writing a decent PR/FAQ they present them to a leadership and stakeholder group. This group evaluates the document, and either greenlights the project (rare), asks for more refinement (sometimes; iteration on projects is common) or rejects the proposal (often).
The rationale behind all of this is:
- Reinforcing customer obsession
- Ensuring efficiency / velocity maximization
- Fostering rigor, simplicity and clarity of thought
- Embedding leadership principles at the company level
‘If the benefits listed don’t sound very interesting or exciting to customers, then perhaps they’re not (and shouldn’t be built). Instead, the product manager should keep iterating on the press release until they’ve come up with benefits that actually sound like benefits. Iterating on a press release is a lot less expensive than iterating on the product itself (and quicker!).’Ian McAllister, on Quora, writing about the Amazon Working Backwards process
The second benefit of the Amazon Working Backwards process is cultural. The process embeds customer centric thinking through the template, which forces critical thinking through that lens.
‘Because the documents are written for customers, it immediately puts each reviewer in the shoes of the customer assessing the proposed launch. The collective customer understanding of all collaborators means that the idea can be rapidly improved, creating a really compelling customer-centric vision.
The other effect that this process has is it breaks people out of their silos and enables them to align on a shared vision. The vision is not about any particular group or silo, but about the customer.
When management make decisions on whether to invest in an idea, they too are looking at it from the customer’s perspective. Inherently, this means that they are making strategic decisions about growth – so every new idea is growth-focussed.
Finally, when implementing, the working backwards document forms the core of the product specification, and helps keep all teams focussed on implementing only those things which will actually deliver value for the customer.’Richard Russell, Founder at Working Backwards, ex-Senior Manager of Product Development at Amazon
The Working Backwards Process is not a simple, easy or even cheap process. However, proponents argue that it is far better to spend the time and effort up front to imagine the product in this way and find its flaws in advance. The alternative is to build it, and then realize after 1 year of commercial effort trying to sell the product that it has failed, or needs more investment or adaptation.
‘Done correctly, the working backwards process is a huge amount of work, but it saves you even more work later. The working backwards process is not designed to be easy. It’s designed to save huge amounts of work on the back end, and make sure we’re actually building the right thing.’Jeff Bezos, talking about the Amazon Working Backwards process
Why use the Amazon Working Backwards process?
It’s the obvious point, but some of Amazon’s most successful products were launched using the Working backwards process. Think Kindle, Prime, or AWS.
The Amazon Working Backwards process is a forcing function to push teams to clarify their thinking and identify what is worth their time. By forcing teams to consider the future product and customer base it can assist teams to
1. Build better products
Audience, need, and therefore solutions are more tightly defined, with greater business rationale, and more proof points of future success, while pet projects / emotional attachment are abandoned.
2. Build with focus
Only build what is necessary for the press release; avoid add ons or bloat.
3. Execute faster
By identifying low value ideas or projects early on it helps maximize company velocity overall by avoiding wastage.
4. Create products that sell
If the product team isn’t excited about the press release, why should anyone else be?
‘[replying to a question] ‘Is the Working Backwards process optional? It sounds great but it seems like a lot of work.” Oh boy, how do we begin…Well, the Working Backwards process should not be optional unless you know a better way. And you shouldn’t know a better way until you’ve tried the Working Backwards process several times.’Jeff Bezos, talking about the Amazon Working Backwards process
How to execute the Amazon Working Backwards Process well using PR/FAQs
There are 2 components to the Amazon Working Backwards process:
- The PR/FAQs documents themselves
- The review meeting
Putting together a PR/FAQ (Template included)
The Press Release is designed to be a 1 to 1.5 page vision statement which clearly articulates the need, the customer set and why customers are intended to get excited about the product.
The FAQs are primarily intended for internal consumption and cover all the questions leadership might answer, such as ‘How big is this market? Why do you think you can charge that price? Will this project be profitable? Does it impact other teams or departments?’.
We have collated a template for both here, including a sample Press Release, and tips to fill out the FAQ questions.
Hustle Badger template for PR/FAQs: Google Doc | Notion
Rules for writing a good press release
- Write from a future, hypothetical perspective – you’re working backwards
- Clearly identify the customer
- Define their problem or need
- Describe the solution which will solve that problem or need, and how
- Persuade the customer to adopt the solution
- Critique yourself: how exciting / credible is this really?
Rules for writing good FAQs
- Think through the topic from a business perspective: is it a big market? Do customers really have this need? How much will all of this cost us and will it pay back? Can we succeed via this strategy?
- Be honest: if there are constraints, dependencies, or conditions for success, state them clearly. There’s no point fudging answers as a review process will likely pick up these issues anyway.
- Don’t take shortcuts: it is a lot of work, and that’s for a reason. You’re requesting that the company invests money in your idea, and it’s reasonable for them to ask you to make your thinking as robust as possible.
Preparing well for a review of PR/FAQs as an author
- Get input on your thinking early – don’t wait to show your manager or other leaders a perfect document. Discuss your thinking early, get their input and questions early on in the drafting cycle.
- Take the feedback you’re getting on the concept seriously. If folks are raising legitimate concerns, even if you don’t want to hear them, write them down and consider them. Does the customer base need to be redefined? Does the solution need to be pivoted? This will make your end output stronger in the long run, and more likely to get approval.
- Try to be unemotional. It’s human to jump to conclusions. It’s human to want to argue your point. But step back and try to evaluate your own proposal imagining that your colleague down the hall had come up with it.
- If you don’t know how to do all the things in the FAQs, learn. This is a great development opportunity and will make you a stronger product manager in the long run. Don’t see it as arduous or tedious but as empowering and developing. You’re being treated like a grown up in the company by being asked these questions.
Recommendations to make reviews effective as a leader implementing the Amazon Working Backwards process:
- Iterate on the template The first thing which Ian recommends is to customize the template to your needs. If you find a key question is missing, add it to the template and include it going forwards. Be pragmatic and design a process which works for you.
- Get in early. The second recommendation is to work iteratively and collaboratively. Encourage your team to share thinking early. It prevents folks investing a ton of time into a PR/FAQ which shifted 45 degrees would be a fantastic idea, but sucks in its current form. PR/FAQs are an iterative process, and repeated cycles of feedback are to be expected.
- Be encouraging. Next, encourage the ideas. A healthy organizational culture is where everyone feels comfortable to share their thinking. Making that uncomfortable will prevent folks putting in the effort. So be kind and be constructive when reviewing documents. You don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The only exception to the be kind rule is if someone is repeatedly falling to take onboard feedback. In this situation you might be more forceful.
- Widen the review circle. In reviewing the document, don’t only include seniors or managers. Encourage the author to add other stakeholders whose perspectives might be valuable. Encourage them to think outside of their immediate circle of influence, and go beyond ‘who can get this greenlit’ to make sure the thinking is as robust as possible.
- Make it a coaching opportunity. When providing feedback, Ian recommends resisting the urge to say ‘just do x y z’. Step back, make the feedback more high level and explain how you thought through the problem. Teach a man to fish, and all that.
- Get really clear on the problem. In reviewing PR/FAQs, the first thing to nail is the problem. Is it a real problem? Is it a big enough problem? Is it exciting to solve? If the answer to those is no, there’s no point jumping into the rest of the topics.
- Ensure the solution actually solves the problem. Assuming it’s a real problem, the next thing to do is to ensure that the solution solves the problem. For example, it might solve the problem for some of the consumer base with need, but miss some out. If that’s the case, either the consumer sizing or the solution needs another look.
- Look for ways to make the solution better. Sometimes folks overcomplicate or constrain solutions because they themselves work within team or code silos, or under constraints. Look for ways that the solution can be simple, elegant and effective, and think big to break constraints
‘Is the author assuming the product has to be profitable in year 1? If so, what could they accomplish if they had a 3-5 year horizon for profitability? Have they assumed they can only build a solution with the resources they have on hand today? If so, what could they build with 5x the resources?’Ian McAllister, ‘Applying Amazon’s Working Backwards Process – for Leaders’
Finally, if you are going to apply the process, do so consistently and don’t bypass it. This is one of those topics where you need to be in or out. If you sometimes apply the Amazon Working Backwards process and sometimes ask for PR/FAQs, and sometimes don’t, the process loses utility and credibility.
In their book, ‘Working Backwards’, Colin Bryar & Bill Carr, two longtime Amazon insiders, who collectively worked alongside Bezos during the nascent years of Kindle and AWS, and who began and ran Prime Video, note that emulations of the methods of Jeff Bezos filter into the culture and working ideology of Amazon. On Bezos’ approach to critiquing narratives, they say that:
Jeff has an uncanny ability to read a narrative and consistently arrive at insights that no one else did, even though we were all reading the same narrative. After one meeting I asked him how he was able to do that. He responded with a simple and useful tip that I have not forgotten: he assumes each sentence he reads is wrong unless he can prove otherwise.Colin Bryar, Bill Carr, Working Backwards: Insights, Stories and Secrets from inside Amazon
Ian McAllister also shares Jeff Bezos’ 3 parameters for evaluating an idea. They are:
- Is it a big idea?
- Is it something we should be doing?
- Is there a legitimate plan to succeed?
Answering those questions well is really what the Amazon Working Backwards Process is all about.
- PR/FAQ template: Google Doc | Notion
- What is Amazon’s approach to product development and product management? – Ian McAllister
- Applying Amazon’s Working Backwards Process – for Leaders – Ian McAllister
- Working Backwards Press Release Template and Example – Ian McAllister
- Jeff Bezos’ 3 Tests for Investing in New Ideas – Ian McAllister
- Building A Cloud Operating Model – Amazon
- Working Backwards: Insights, Stories and Secrets from Inside Amazon – Colin Bryar and Bill Carr
- Working Backwards | How PR/FAQs help launch successful products like AWS, Kindle & Prime Video – Colin Bryar
- High Velocity Decision Making – Hustle Badger
What does Amazon mean by working backwards?
The Amazon Working Backwards process is a product or service development methodology developed at Amazon. Teams are encouraged to start by identifying and sizing the customer base and their needs, and to work backwards from that to develop a robust proposal for a product or service. They are then encouraged to imagine it’s the day before the launch of that product, to craft a press release, and to work backwards from there; i.e. refine the press release, only develop what is in the press release. It’s a robust and rigorous methodology, aimed at maximising company velocity by preventing wastage, and embedding customer first principles at every layer of the company’s activities.
What do Amazon leaders start with and work backwards?
Amazon’s first leadership principle is Customer Obsession. They state that: ‘Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.’ Amazon has various practices to embed this leadership principle within the company, including the Working Backwards Process.
Where can I find an Amazon Working Backwards template?
You can find an Amazon Working Backwards template here. It includes a PR (Press Release) template, with examples of how to fill it in, and an FAQs (frequently asked questions) template to help put together a killer PR/FAQs.