Fast Times

How Amazon is built to try and learn

The pace of change requires companies to continually learn and adapt. Beth Galetti, senior vice president of human resources at Amazon, describes how this reality has led Amazon to cultivate a culture of continuous learning and put in place the infrastructure to support it.

A culture of empowerment and continuous feedback

Our customers’ needs evolve and grow, so continuous learning is an imperative for all Amazonians. We capture this intent in our leadership principle, “Learn and Be Curious.” That principle is very important because we are frequently doing things that have never been done before. For this reason, there is often no playbook to teach nor experts to follow, so we empower people to try new things and learn along the way.

That philosophy of empowerment is reflected in the fact that we expect every employee to be an owner. If they see any issue that affects customer experience or have an idea about how to improve it, they’re expected to jump in, whether or not it’s in their area of expertise. We have a few awards to recognize this kind of behavior. One is called the “Just Do It” award. Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and CEO, presents the employee or team responsible for the improvement with a Nike shoe during one of our corporate all-hands meetings. This simple but meaningful recognition reinforces the culture of empowering employees to take care of problems.

We also want learning to be continuous, so we have a culture of real-time feedback. Feedback is shared directly with the intention of making everyone involved better at delivering the best for our customers. To help with this, we built Connections, a mechanism that asks every employee a question each day when they log in to their computer or workstation. The answers provide aggregated feedback to their manager, highlighting areas to improve and surfacing relevant learning assets (such as online training) that the manager can access immediately. Questions are posed on a wide range of topics, from work environment to the manager’s effectiveness, team dynamics, and, most importantly, any barriers that are getting in the way of employees inventing on behalf of customers.

We also have an annual review process called “Forte,” where we focus on an employee’s “superpowers.” Superpowers are specific and distinctive descriptions of an employee’s unique, exceptional strengths. Forte is a simple, lightweight process in which every employee receives direct feedback from their manager, peers, and team members about their superpowers, as well as some growth ideas for the future.

Developing a learning infrastructure

Learning starts with helping people learn our culture as soon as they start here. We have a program called “Escape Velocity,” a three-day onboarding immersion experience designed specifically for externally hired vice presidents and directors. As the name implies, Escape Velocity is designed to help leaders leave the gravitational pull of their previous organization and enter a new orbit with Amazon. The program focuses on setting expectations and explaining our unique culture.

Current senior leaders teach new leaders the required mind-sets and skills to be successful, such as shifting from a “competitor and investor focus” to “customer obsession,” from a reliance on PowerPoint to well-thought-out narratives, and from a short-term emphasis on cost cutting or quarterly results to doing the right thing for the long-term. Instructors also present case studies and lead discussions on the importance of rigorous truth seeking and the nature of decision making at Amazon.

For ongoing learning, we have an internal wiki site that contains a wealth of information about Amazon, and we’ve built an internal video site called “Broadcast,” where people can post videos so that others can learn everything from specific coding practices to how to write a persuasive “working backward” document. We make it easy for anyone to publish and have developed a strong search engine to make the content easy to find. Since we know which videos perform best, we actively curate the content to make the most effective ones easily accessible. We have a manager learning hub, for example, where we put core learning courses and top videos. We also have classes for face-to-face training, but we rely on people to be self-reliant and scrappy by reaching out to get information.

Our Career Choice program is another example of ongoing learning. Career Choice classes are held in our fulfillment centers, and for those who enroll, Amazon prepays up to 95 percent of tuition and fees toward a vocational certificate or associate degree in fields ranging from IT and computer science to healthcare and transportation. The idea is to put people on a path toward well-paying, in-demand professions in their communities. We recognize that for some people, Amazon is a lifelong career, and for others, it’s a stepping stone.

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Creating experiences for learning

We estimate that more than 90 percent of the learning that happens at Amazon comes from being challenged and having new experiences in their jobs.

Accordingly, we give our employees plenty of room to expand their roles. Due to our high rate of growth (31 percent year-over-year net sales revenue growth in 2017 alone), most Amazonians find that the scope of their job can grow just as fast. It often happens that an individual will have an idea approved, test it, develop it, and scale it. And soon they’re running a new program with a team. I know plenty of people who started here as lawyers or engineers but through this entrepreneurial process are now product owners or leaders of large businesses. It is not uncommon for an Amazonian to be promoted one or two levels in just a few years as they develop skills of running a project.

We typically have thousands of open positions available at any time and encourage Amazonians to try new experiences so they can learn new skills and gain expertise in other businesses. We make it easy for people to transfer to different teams as part of a deliberate program to give people new opportunities.

We have metrics to track if this experience-driven learning approach is working. We look at promotions and transfers, as well as the time between promotions. The biggest thing we look at is how the pace of development and product releases is increasing; that’s what really tells us if we’re growing and learning.

Thoughtful speed to get ideas to market

Nearly every new idea follows a “working backward” process. That means when an employee wants to present an idea, they start from the customer’s perspective and work backward from there. They write a narrative that provides answers to questions that are specifically related to the customer, such as, “How would the customer access the new product?”; “What would it cost?”; and “What are the benefits to the customer?” Then we discuss the idea and challenge it. There are a set of questions we typically ask, but we’re careful not to be too prescriptive, since we’re often asking people to do something that has never been done before. These narratives, called “PR/FAQs,” frequently take weeks to develop, with the inventor(s) carefully refining their thinking through multiple iterations and soliciting feedback from colleagues to help make the idea stronger and better for the customer.

To decide which ideas get the green light for moving forward, decision makers are pulled together for a meeting to review and discuss the concept. The meeting starts a bit like a study hall. The PR/FAQ is read quietly in the meeting, by all attendees, and the discussion only begins once everyone has read the full document. Once the discussion begins, the environment is intentionally designed to remove politics. The most senior person in the room frequently speaks last, so as not to sway the room before all diverse perspectives are considered and to improve the chances of finding the “path to yes” for the customer.

Once an idea is approved, it’s all hands-on deck to move the new product or service forward quickly. Typically, we will start with a pilot program, which provides meaningful feedback for the team to iterate for the next version. If the idea performs well, we make sure to allocate resources quickly so it can scale. For example, the PR/FAQ for Prime Now—our one-hour delivery service—went from concept to launch in only 111 days. There was a lot of iteration that took place during those 111 days, but once we hit on a formula that worked, we launched Prime Now in New York City, and over the following months we expanded it to customers worldwide.

Hiring the best “builders”

One of the ways we work to ensure we’re hiring the best candidates is through our Bar Raiser program. We want every hire we make to be better than half of the people currently working here at that level. We carefully select tenured Amazonians to be Bar Raisers, those who have conducted more than 25 interviews and “are right, a lot” in their assessment of candidates. They serve as a neutral third party on the interview panel, meaning that they’re not in the hiring manager’s chain of command. For an offer to be extended, the Bar Raiser must agree to hire the candidate.

Since we’re a company of builders, we look for people who know how to invent, think big, and deliver results. We hire based on our culture and passion for innovation, not solely based on whether a candidate has previously done the job. We want people with a beginner’s mind-set, eager to learn new things.

My own experience at Amazon is a perfect example of this. My professional background is in technology, engineering, operations, and transportation, so I applied for a role in Amazon’s transportation organization. After a full day of interviews, the recruiter called me back to ask if I’d be interested in a role in HR. I was slightly baffled, since I had no experience in HR and thought they had confused me with another candidate. The recruiter explained that I was at my most passionate and engaged when I talked about my experiences developing people, leading large organizations, and growing teams. Since Amazon is hiring tens of thousands of people each year, and needs to develop those individuals and grow their skills, they thought my unique background combining engineering, technology, and leadership development would be a great fit. It was an unusual opportunity, and I can’t imagine many other companies willing to take such a risk.