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Use Amazon’s Practice of “Working Backwards” to Completely Transform How You Work

Learn how the process works and how it can help you and your business.

Claudio Toledo via Flickr

Over the past 25 years, Amazon has transformed itself. What began as an online bookseller has become one of the world’s largest retailers. Beyond that, Amazon is the market leader in cloud storage services (AWS), is a major producer of both television and film (Amazon Studios), and has now entered the health care market.

Of course, not all of Amazon’s ideas pan out. (Anyone out there still have a Fire Phone?) But even when they don’t, the lessons learned prove invaluable–and sometimes lead to even more extraordinary ideas.

So, how do Jeff Bezos and co. do it? How do they decide on which ideas to focus their considerable resources, and which they want to leave behind?

Ian McAllister, Director of Amazon Day and former Director of Amazon Smile, shared an insightful look into Amazon’s approach for product development on Quora a few years ago.

The approach is known as “working backwards.” 

Let’s break down how this process works and see how it can help you and your business.

Working backwards

According to McAllister, working backwards begins by “[trying] to work backwards from the customer, rather than starting with an idea for a product and trying to bolt customers onto it.”

For new initiative, the process begins with a formidable task: A product manager must write an internal press release announcing a finished product.

“Internal press releases are centered around the customer problem, how current solutions (internal or external) fail, and how the new product will blow away existing solutions,” writes McAllister. “If the benefits listed don’t sound very interesting or exciting to customers, then perhaps they’re not (and shouldn’t be built).”

In that case, the manager must continue revising the press release until they’ve come up with something better. A lot of work for an idea that may never come to fruition? Yes. But as McAllister explains, “Iterating on a press release is a lot less expensive than iterating on the product itself (and quicker!).”

McAllister goes on to share a sample outline for an internal press release:

Heading: Name the product in a way the reader (i.e., your target customers) will understand.

Subheading: Describe who the market for the product is and what benefit they get. One sentence only underneath the title.

Summary: Give a summary of the product and the benefit. Assume the reader will not read anything else so make this paragraph good.

Problem: Describe the problem your product solves.

Solution: Describe how your product elegantly solves the problem.

Quote from You: A quote from a spokesperson in your company.

How to Get Started: Describe how easy it is to get started.

Customer Quote: Provide a quote from a hypothetical customer that describes how they experienced the benefit.

Closing and Call to Action: Wrap it up and give pointers where the reader should go next.

In addition to the above template, McAllister advises that you should keep the press release simple, a page and a half or less, with paragraphs made up of no more than three to four sentences.

Part of keeping it simple means writing for mainstream customers, a technique McAllister calls “Oprah-speak.” “Imagine you’re sitting on Oprah’s couch and have just explained the product to her, and then you listen as she explains it to her audience,” he writes. “That’s ‘Oprah-speak,’ not ‘geek-speak.'”

If the product actually makes it into development, the press release can then be used as a touchstone. 

When building major products, it’s easy to get carried away with trying to add new features or address minor details, a problem known in project management as “scope creep.” To help battle that, McAllister advises product teams ask themselves: “Are we building what’s in the press release?” If not, they need to ask themselves why.

How working backwards can help you

This approach isn’t just smart, it’s emotionally intelligent, too.

Sometimes, we’re emotionally attached to ideas that just aren’t that good. But the more time and effort we invest into these ideas, the more difficult it is to let go of them. This can result in a lot of wasted time, energy, and other resources spent to build a product that was never going to be worth it in the end.

By working backwards, you get the chance to work on your idea and flesh it out. But you’re also forced to put it to the test. After writing and rewriting, refining and reiterating, it will become clear if the idea is really worth pursuing. That clarity often helps you to let go of mediocre ideas so you can concentrate on great ones.

And when you do decide to move forward, your press release will help you to stay focused, to continue to see things through the eyes of your customer–and to communicate in a way they’ll easily understand.

So, the next time you think you’ve got a great idea, start by working backwards–and transform your work from good to great. 

Enjoy this post? Check out my book, EQ Applied, which uses fascinating research and compelling stories to illustrate what emotional intelligence looks like in everyday life.

A version of this article originally appeared on Inc.com.

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