A Bias for Action: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos on How to Stop Overthinking

Image: Eva Darron/Unsplash 

At Twitter, Dan Rose tells a story about working at Amazon on the team that was incubating the Kindle. He recalls a meeting with Jeff Bezos, and his boss Steve Kessel:

Steve brought me + 2 other people from the team, we got on Jeff’s plane in Seattle. Jeff was fired up from the start, posing strategy questions & brainstorming our approach to hardware, software and content (my job). He had us captive for 4 hours and didn’t waste a second.

When he asked about our strategy for getting book publishers on board with digital books, I mentioned we would need a DRM solution (like Apple had done with music). There was a small start-up based in Paris that had already built DRM for e-books and we might want to acquire them.

When Jeff heard this he said “let’s fly straight to Paris and buy this company.” I thought he was kidding but he was dead serious. Steve reminded him they had 2 days of operating reviews scheduled with the exec team later that week, but Jeff said he would move or cancel them.

Like I wrote in my piece on career pathing, narratives and decisions are clean only in stories looking back; but if you were to watch them unfold live, it would all look really messy and chaotic. There are a couple of things I appreciated about this story:

1. A Manager’s Output

A manager doesn’t really produce anything. With Bezos leading a team of thousands at the time, his output is the company—how well they operate, how quickly they can make decisions, how focused and organized the team is. Kessel made a good management decision, bringing up the two days of operating reviews. And Bezos made a good hiring decision to bring Kessel on, to keep himself and the rest of the team running smoothly.

Two days’ worth of meetings doesn’t sound like a lot to make good headway on a project, but think of it as at least six big decisions, without Bezos’s input. It would’ve taken away Bezos’s leverage and buy-in away from the team. No doubt clearing these meetings would’ve cost more time, and probably more money, in the long run. 

2. The Emotion of a Decision

To Bezos, clearing these meetings would’ve been worth it. He knew the priority for that specific team was to acquire the company. Situations can change quickly. If they didn’t get it done immediately, they might not have a chance to accelerate their process. Worse yet, the company might be scooped up by a more nimble competitor. 

It’s also worth noting this (admittedly generic) Bezos quote from his interview with The Economic Club of Washington, “All of my best decisions in business and in life have been made with heart, intuition, guts… not analysis. If you can make a decision with analysis, you should do so. But it turns out in life that your most important decisions are always made with instinct and intuition, taste, heart.” 

3. A Bias for Action can Be Costly

One of Bezos’s and Amazon’s core values is prominent here: a bias for action. They describe it as a principle at their jobs website, which I elaborated on a few years ago:

Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.

Dan Ross’s story continues (emphasis added):

Steve ultimately convinced Jeff to keep the existing itinerary. (Steve and I would eventually fly to Paris and acquire Mobipocket as our DRM for Kindle). I later asked Steve if Jeff was really serious about going to Paris.

Steve said “one thing I’ve learned working for Jeff is that he is a man of action. If there’s a traffic jam on the highway, he’d rather take the side roads even if it takes him longer to reach his destination. He must always be moving. It’s inspiring, and sometimes infuriating.”

Amazon later adopted “bias for action” as one of their core values, and I watched Jeff demonstrate it many times. I learned to incorporate this mentality into my own style as an executive, and I have often been told in performance reviews that it is one of my biggest strengths.

Whenever there’s doubt about whether to act or wait, I always err on the side of taking action. There has to be good reason to wait, otherwise I want to get moving. I’d rather fail trying than succeed by not acting. This has served me well in my career, and I thank Jeff for it.

A bias for action is easy to describe and understand. It’s much more difficult to implement because it comes with its own costs, which teams, leaders, and managers need to factor in. The economic cost and waste is the least of it. 

A bias for action can mean making mistakes, it can mean repeating the same mistakes as other teams, and in most corporate and team cultures it might mean hurting your own reputation and diminishing colleagues’ trust in you. Sometimes it really does take longer, or might even be counterproductive—but on average, most times it’ll be faster. 

It doesn’t have to be like that, especially with good communication, good management and information gathering, and if a leader creates psychological safety for the team. (See the trust battery.) Also, a bias for action sometimes requires limited buy-in and approvals, limited information, and just really hardcore focused execution.

In this case, Amazon made the bias for action one of its core values and principles. I’m almost sure it’s not that simple to enforce at that size—results matter!—but it’s a step in the direction to keep it speedy.

Remember, Someone Else Should Get Value from It

Carta CEO Henry Ward writes (emphasis added):

Recently, we’ve slowed down. It is time to speed up. The way to speed up is to ship value faster. This is true whether we are building product, delivering a strategy report, presenting financial forecasts, or scheduling time with candidates. The faster you ship value, the faster someone receives that value, and the faster you learn.

Velocity does not equal haste. It is possible to deliver high quality work at high velocity. The way to do that is to have a maniacal focus on the fastest path to value. Most delays in projects are not because the person was trying to avoid low quality work. Most delays are because the team wanted to do too much and spent weeks working and planning, and ended up not doing anything at all. If we narrow our focus to the increments of value we are delivering, we can ship quality with velocity.

High-velocity means relentlessly shipping your work product to someone who can give you feedback every day, every week, every month.

I love Ward’s perspective on a bias for action, because it keeps in mind the purpose of organizational speed. It’s two-fold: delivering value to the customer, so actually having someone receive the value. Second, learning firsthand—not through the design or customer insights team—what customers find valuable and don’t. The rest of Ward’s memo is worth reading as well.

There’s a difference between thrashing away impulsively without context, and making a strong, informed, decision and taking action. Remember that Bezos spent four hours with his team before deciding to travel to acquire this company (and subsequently deciding to send Dan Ross to do it).

This was a somewhat syntopic read on the topic, which I find fascinating. On rare instances, there are situations where doing nothing is clearly a better choice; the best way to clear up muddy water is to leave it alone. But most of the time, taking action remains the best way to add value to someone else’s life—to give something worth giving to someone else. 

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