Tuesday, June 6, 2017

As Jeff Bezos says, are big ideas incredibly easy to identify?

In a recent interview, Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos made following statement (18:22): “The main job of a senior leader is to identify 2 or 3 important ideas and then to enforce great execution against those big ideas. And the good news is, the big ideas are usually incredibly easy to identify.” For anyone who has dabbled in innovation, this may sound like a strange statement. If identification of big ideas is really that simple, why isn’t everybody running with one? Is there a catch here? Or, was Bezos just joking? Let’s explore this in this article.

Here is the context. Bezos is answering the question, “Can you predict what Amazon will look like ten years from now?” He first points out that the observable Amazon could change quite a bit. Nobody could have predicted ten years ago that Amazon Web Services (AWS) would be a significant contributor to Amazon business. Then he mentions that hopefully the core approach involving customer obsession, willingness to invent and long term view (patience & accepting failures as a path to success) would remain the same. This is where he makes the statement that big ideas are incredibly easy to identify.

What are the three big ideas for Amazon consumer business? They are: Low prices, fast delivery and vast selection. Of course, that’s the dream of any retailer. And it’s known for a long time. Bezos stresses that “big ideas should be obvious.” Now, let’s de-layer this a bit.

First, let’s notice that when Bezos spells out these ideas, they get presented as questions. E.g. How do we always deliver things a little faster? How do we reduce our cost structure so that we can reduce our prices lower? etc. So what Bezos refers to as big ideas in this context, are actually big challenges. In fact, I would call them strategic challenges. And as Bezos says, they are usually stable over time. He is also quick to add following caveat: It is hard to maintain a firm grasp on the obvious at all times. Little things can distract from the obvious.   

I have been talking to senior leaders for the past decade. And I am not convinced that they know what their big challenges are. Or at least they haven’t been able to articulate them in a clear manner.  Perhaps, Bezos is right. Every senior leader knows the big challenges. However, the caveat, the little distractions, is creating a cloud of confusion. And leader is losing focus on the strategic challenges. I don’t know. What do you think?

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