How to Handle Conflict: Disagree and Commit [Lessons from Amazon & ‘The Bezos Way’]

How Amazon’s Jeff Bezos Propels Innovation

Entrepreneurial Lessons from Amazon Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos Amazon’s founder and CEO Jeff Bezos once remarked that it takes five to seven years before the innovation seeds that Amazon plants flourish enough to have a significant impact on the economics of the business.

Since its founding in 1994, Amazon has made endless investments in expanding its business models. It has successfully used its money-making ventures to bankroll explorations into peripheral lines of business. Many of its capital allocation decisions haven’t yielded strong profits; yet, Amazon has flourished beyond everyone’s expectations and its growth potential is undeniable.

Central to this innovation strategy has been Bezos and his leadership team’s foresight, early commitment, and stubborn confidence in the prospect of R&D. Under Bezos’s direction and long-term focus, Amazon still operates as a founder-driven start-up in several major areas.

Bezos has a compelling cultural influence and has institutionalized his distinctive entrepreneurial mindset across the company. His core values are codified as Amazon’s 14 Leadership Principles, one of which is “Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit”:

Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.

“Disagree and Commit”

Jeff Bezos’s latest short-but-compelling annual letter to his shareholders contains pearls of wisdom on leadership, management, and teamwork. Read the letter; it won’t take long.

Speaking about high-velocity decision making in an ingenious culture, Bezos says he encourages Amazon’s leaders and employees to use the phrase “disagree and commit” to disagree respectfully and experiment with ideas:

Use the phrase “disagree and commit.” This phrase will save a lot of time. If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, “Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?” By the time you’re at this point, no one can know the answer for sure, and you’ll probably get a quick yes.

This isn’t one way. If you’re the boss, you should do this too. I disagree and commit all the time. We recently greenlit a particular Amazon Studios original. I told the team my view: debatable whether it would be interesting enough, complicated to produce, the business terms aren’t that good, and we have lots of other opportunities. They had a completely different opinion and wanted to go ahead. I wrote back right away with “I disagree and commit and hope it becomes the most watched thing we’ve ever made.” Consider how much slower this decision cycle would have been if the team had actually had to convince me rather than simply get my commitment.

Note what this example is not: it’s not me thinking to myself “well, these guys are wrong and missing the point, but this isn’t worth me chasing.” It’s a genuine disagreement of opinion, a candid expression of my view, a chance for the team to weigh my view, and a quick, sincere commitment to go their way. And given that this team has already brought home 11 Emmys, 6 Golden Globes, and 3 Oscars, I’m just glad they let me in the room at all!

Entrepreneurial Lessons from Amazon Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos: Disagree and Commit Bezos’s “fail-and-learn” refrain echoes what he wrote on risk-taking in Amazon’s first annual shareholder letter in 1997: “Given a 10 percent chance of a 100-times payout, you should take that bet every time … Failure and invention are inseparable twins. To invent you have to experiment, and if you know in advance that it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment.” That letter has become Amazon’s manifesto on the benefits and methods to long-term thinking and Bezos quotes that letter in every year’s annual letter.

To “disagree and commit” compels people to step out of their comfort zones and to sincerely commit to a project’s success. There is no room for sabotage and disruption—neither can people wait in the wings to exclaim “I told you so.” To “disagree and commit” is to be willing to take prudent risks by acknowledging that others may have diverse beliefs, approaches, ideas, and styles.

Idea for Impact: Embrace Failure because it Leads to Innovation

Many people want to be curious, creative, and experimental—they like to take initiative and investigate new products and solutions. But, when facing difficult choices, they’re naturally afraid of what they don’t know. Self-doubt sets in. They resort to safe and predictable processes. This mindset stifles the very inventive approach they want to apply and foster.

Fear of failure and self-doubt are not usually rooted in facts. They’re emotional. Don’t let this emotion make you play it safe. Don’t overthink your way out of challenges. Understand the types and amounts of risks that are acceptable to you. When facing the prospect of failure, you’re more likely to get unstuck by trying low-risk actions. Experiment. Fail. Learn. Innovate.

Success may instill confidence, but failure imparts wisdom.

Lessons from Amazon: ‘Mock Press Release’ Discipline to Sell an Idea

If you have a brilliant idea at work, the modern workplace demands that you distill your ideas into a killer PowerPoint presentation to enlighten, entertain (with animations and special effects,) and convince your audience.

As I mentioned in my previous blog article, presentations may make ineffective communication tools. They tend to promote “a seductive laziness of thought that is anti-rigor, anti-elegance, and—most damaging—anti-audience.”

'The Everything Store' by Brad Stone (ISBN 0316219266) Amazon’s corporate culture agrees. In Brad Stone’s The Everything Store, former Amazon executive Jeff Holden commented that “PowerPoint is a very imprecise communication mechanism. It is fantastically easy to hide between bullet points. You are never forced to express your thoughts completely.”

Instead of PowerPoint presentations, Amazon uses a narrative format called the ‘Mock Press Release.’ According to this disciplined approach, for every new feature, product, or service that employees intend to pitch within their divisions, they must produce a press release-style document wherein a hypothetical Amazon customer would first learn about the feature.

Amazon contends that if something isn’t interesting enough for a customer and can’t be eloquently expressed in a mock press release format, Amazon probably shouldn’t invest in the idea. Brad Stone’s The Everything Store mentions,

Bezos announced that employees could no longer use such corporate crutches and would have to write their presentations in prose, in what he called narratives. … He wanted people thinking deeply and taking the time to express their thoughts cogently.

Bezos refined the formula even further. Every time a new feature or product was proposed, he decreed that the narrative should take the shape of a mock press release. The goal was to get employees to distill a pitch into its purest essence, to start from something the customer might see—the public announcement—and work backward.

Amazon’s famously customer-oriented culture argues that this disciplined innovation forces all ideas to be rationalized from the customers’ perspective. Therefore, Amazon encourages it’s employees to write these mock press releases in what’s internally called “Oprah-speak” (how the idea would be explained plainly on The Oprah Winfrey Show) rather than in “geek speak.”

Jeff Bezos of Amazon

Rather than have employees present their ideas using PowerPoint decks, attendees receive copies of multi-page narratives (as opposed to the one-page format used at Procter & Gamble) and study the ideas before ensuing debate and decision.

On Quora, former Amazon executive Ian McAllister argued the advantages of this narrative form:

We try to work backwards from the customer, rather than starting with an idea for a product and trying to bolt customers onto it. While working backwards can be applied to any specific product decision, using this approach is especially important when developing new products or features.

McAllister also provided a sample outline for the Amazon mock press release,

  • Heading – Name the product in a way the reader (i.e. your target customers) will understand.
  • Sub-Heading – 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.

Also see:

Ever Wonder If The Other Side May Be Right?

Considering different viewpoints on any issue

The French essayist and novelist Andre Gide once wrote, “Believe those who are seeking the truth; doubt those who find it.”

Scratch the surface of any thinking ideologue and you’ll find not certainties but contradictions and doubts.

Darwin’s doubts about natural selection and evolution

Even after the publication of his seminal Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin had crippling doubts about some aspects of natural selection. Specifically, if natural selection was to have lasting effects, evolutionary advances had to be conserved and passed on from one generation to the next. Darwin agreed with scientists who argued that his evolutionary theory failed to explain how variations are transmitted from parents to their offspring.

It was not until the 1930s that biologists started to study Gregor Mendel’s work on genetic inheritance and heredity in conjunction with Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Only then did biologists come to understand how variation of characteristics is passed on to new generations and how evolution is a process of descent with modification.

Seek to have an idea tomorrow that contradicts your idea today

At a Q&A at American web application company Basecamp, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos opined that people who are “right a lot” are those who had a flexible mindset and often changed their minds. Summarizing the conversation, Basecamp co-founder Jason Fried wrote,

[Bezos] observed that the smartest people are constantly revising their understanding, reconsidering a problem they thought they’d already solved. They’re open to new points of view, new information, new ideas, contradictions, and challenges to their own way of thinking.

He doesn’t think consistency of thought is a particularly positive trait. It’s perfectly healthy—encouraged, even—to have an idea tomorrow that contradicted your idea today.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a well formed point of view, but it means you should consider your point of view as temporary.

What trait signified someone who was wrong a lot of the time? Someone obsessed with details that only support one point of view. If someone can’t climb out of the details, and see the bigger picture from multiple angles, they’re often wrong most of the time.

Idea for Impact: Wisdom comes from seeking wisdom

Want to learn, expand your worldview, and broaden your mindset? Start by seeking out the right people—mix with people other than those from your own background (professional, cultural, social, academic, racial, ethnic, etc.) Remember that birds of a feather do flock together. Instead of preferring the company of other people from similar backgrounds, try investing some time with people who have viewpoints that contrast your own.

French entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre once wrote, “Seek those who find your road agreeable, your personality and mind stimulating, your philosophy acceptable, and your experiences helpful. Let those who do not, seek their own kind.” Look for those who respect your worldview—even if drastically different from theirs—but can present alternative perspectives and push you into considering different viewpoints on any issue of mutual interest.

Success Conceals Wickedness

Biographies of Steve Jobs (by Walter Isaacson,) Jeff Bezos (by Brad Stone,) and Elon Musk (by Ashlee Vance)

Two common themes in the biographies of Steve Jobs (by Walter Isaacson,) Jeff Bezos (by Brad Stone,) and Elon Musk (by Ashley Vance) are these entrepreneurs’ extreme personalities and the costs of their extraordinary successes.

The world mostly regards Musk, Jobs, and Bezos as passionate, inspiring, visionary, and charismatic leaders who’ve transformed their industries. Yet their biographies paint a vivid picture of how ill-mannered these innovators are (or were, in the case of Jobs). They exercise ruthless control over every aspect of their companies’ products but have little tolerance for underperformers. They are extremely demanding of employees and unnecessarily demeaning to people who help them succeed.

  • Steve Jobs was renowned for his cranky, rude, spiteful, and controlling outlook. Biographer Isaacson recalls, “Nasty was not necessary. It hindered him more than it helped him.” Jobs famously drove his Mercedes around without a license and frequently parked in handicapped spots. For years, he denied paternity of his first daughter Lisa and forced her and her mother to live on welfare. He often threw tantrums when he didn’t get his way and publicly humiliated employees.
  • In a 2010 commencement address at Princeton, Jeff Bezos recalled his grandfather counseling, “Jeff, one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.” Still, according to Brad Stone’s biography, Bezos often imparts insulting rebukes and criticisms to employees: “I’m sorry, did I take my stupid pills today?” “Are you lazy or just incompetent?” “Why are you wasting my life?” and “Do I need to go down and get the certificate that says I’m CEO of the company to get you to stop challenging me on this?”
  • According to Ashlee Vance’s biography, when an executive assistant asked for a raise, Elon Musk asked her to take a two-week vacation while he contemplated her request. When the assistant returned from vacation, Musk fired her.

“Success covers a multitude of blunders”

The great Irish playwright Oscar Wilde once remarked, “No object is so beautiful that, under certain conditions, it will not look ugly.”

The other great Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote, “Success covers a multitude of blunders.”

British politician and historian Lord John Dalberg-Acton famously said, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. That is the point at which … the end learns to justify the means.”

Ethics Violations by NBC News Anchor Brian Williams

Ethics Violations by NBC News Anchor Brian Williams In 2015, NBC suspended prominent news anchor Brian Williams after internal investigations revealed no less than 11 instances where he either embellished facts or bent the truth. Members of his team and NBC staffers who knew about these ethics violations chose to overlook because he was powerful. According to The New York Times,

Mr. Williams has been drawing 9.3 million viewers a night, and his position seemed unassailable. Even as the stature of the nightly newscast faded in the face of real-time digital news, Mr. Williams was one of the most trusted names in America … He was powerful. Williams had the ear of NBC boss Steve Burke. He was a ratings powerhouse. And he spent years overseeing TV’s most watched newscast. He was a winner, for himself, those around him and those above him—until it became clear the man who is supposed be among the most trusted in America had issues with telling the truth.

Power Corrupts the Mind

Brilliant men and women engage in morally wrong conduct simply because they can. They can get away with extreme pride, temper, abuse, and other disruptive behaviors because their spectacular success can and does cover many of their sins, even in the eyes of those at the receiving end of their crudeness.

Our high-achieving culture adores the successful, the powerful, and the rich. And part of this adoration is the exemption we grant these celebrities from the ordinary rules of professional civility.

Idea for Impact: The more people possess power and the more successful they get, the more they focus on their own egocentric perspectives and ignore others’ interests.