Amazon Drives Innovation by Creating Opportunities for Vast Discovery

Last week I was in a golf tournament for my college fraternity Beta Theta Pi and had the pleasure of being grouped with several current students.  After a few stories of debauchery and crazy antics from over twenty years ago we got on to the subject of careers.  One of the students mentioned that he was majoring in Information Systems which also was my undergraduate degree.  The discussion triggered a flashback of the amazing amount of discovery that seemed to be bombarding me at that time in my life.  Looking back over my “career path” I now realize how I have continually struggled to maintain that extraordinary sense of discovery I felt then.

As I talked about my career, I enjoyed recounting how I was actually “on the Internet” before there was “the Web” and boasting about how terrible my graphic arts skills were.  I recently pulled up the first website I had launched almost twenty years ago for the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.  The website was the first web server for the Carlson School and one of the university’s first as well.  If you want a good laugh you can see if for yourself via the Wayback Machine, an “Internet archive” that takes a snapshot of every website over time.  Our work wasn’t pretty but we were all figuring it out as we went along.  We knew that leading discovery meant constantly trying new things and being vulnerable to our imperfections.  Our only guidebook at the time was Zen and the Art of the Internet: A Beginner’s Guide by Brendan Kehoe.

Over the last year I have talked with hundreds of individuals about innovation and risk taking.  From these discussions I’ve heard a consistent theme emerg.:

Throughout our personal and professional lives there is a gradual shift from
risk taking and discovery to playing it safe.

We still learn new things but over time it is usually over a narrower band of disciplines; we will begin to specialize.  It may not be this explicit but sometime in college we are told that the time for vast discovery is over and that we have to declare a major.  In the business world we are told that we need to choose a career path.  If we just follow the path in front of us our options are usually pretty clear: we focus on marketing, supply chain, accounting, information technology, etc.  The further we specialize in our field the more money we are able to make but the narrower our future choices become and the less we are exposed to work of other disciplines.

As I was doing some research on Amazon’s model for innovation I came across an HBR interview with CEO Jeff Bezos describing how he tries to create a culture of discovery.  He said, “We have an explorer mentality.  And the people who like our mentality of exploration and pioneering they tend to stay here and have fun here and this is self-reinforcing.

Jeff Bezos - Amazon

Amazon’s own history could be described as a series of vast discoveries: book e-retailer, e-retailing superstore, web services provider, to hardware designer and manufacturer.  They are taking a long-term orientation and letting their business model constantly evolve as they discover new areas to grow their business.  Investors seem to have agreed with this long-term approach by shrugging off the company’s $7m quarterly loss as the stock price ($AMZN) remains near its all time high.

There is a fine balance with this model though.  A company needs to have subject matter experts that can lead the business but they also need individuals who are humble and curious.  They want innovators who understand the limits of their current knowledge and seek to make the vast discoveries that will propel the organization forward.

Food for thought:

  • Does your team have a mentality of exploration and pioneering?
  • Does your organization create opportunities for vast discovery?
  • Are you willing to be vulnerable with the imperfections in your work or are you playing it safe?

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