News of Amazon’s innovations and innovative industry moves are becoming more and more common, as is the company’s recognition for being an innovation-friendly workplace. Fast Company named Amazon one of the 50 best workplaces for innovators last August, for example.
And how did Amazon gain this reputation? In August, staffers for Amazon’s “Day One” blog shared exactly how Amazon fosters a culture of innovation. Interestingly, they drew a distinction between the “hackathon,” inspiration-in-doses approach of Facebook, saying that innovation at Amazon is more of a daily practice.
Here’s how that happens at Amazon according to the company, and how you can make innovation part of your company’s DNA as well.
1. Every single employee is empowered to innovate.
Plenty of companies say they do this, yet few follow through quite like the Seattle stalwart. Amazon encourages this with its working-backwards plan and what’s called a “PRFAQ” document. Any employee with a big idea outlines the vision for their product idea with a theoretical press release to go with it, and writes a FAQ that explains the customer benefits and answers potential customer questions. A team of fellow innovators at Amazon evaluates the idea, and some get funding and make it to market. As an example, Prime Now, Amazon Go, and Alexa all came from this process.
It’s a smart approach because it’s an actual system and process that’s been baked into the culture–there’s no excuse not to contribute if you have an idea. It also forces the inventor to think through the idea from the customer’s perspective. And it’s something you can do at your company, as long as you’re willing to have the network of evaluators established and are willing to put your money where your mouth is.
2. Failure is more than embraced, it’s expected.
In many companies, some I’ve even worked for, leaders can talk a big game about taking risks and being willing to fail. But then when a project does fail, it has career implications for many involved.
Amazon writes in the blog that it’s a safe space to fail. It’s about more than the typical test, fail, repeat cycle that many companies can claim. The Amazon staffers say if you’re testing something that you know will work, it isn’t considered an experiment, and thus you’re not inventing anything.
My experience tells me that for a true spirit-of-invention-enabled-by-failure to succeed, the kinds of failures that are acceptable have to be spelled out (not all failures are created equal) and they must be rewarded.
3. Decisions aren’t seen as irreversible.
This nuance of the Amazon culture encourages experimentation. If it’s agreed in advance that a failed experiment won’t have a negative impact on the customer, it makes inventors more comfortable proceeding.
It’s understood at Amazon that it’s OK to unwind a decision that was the wrong one, and to try again with a different decision. When employees feel every experiment is loaded with implications, they aren’t going to experiment as much. Would you?
4. Help employees move toward their passions and ideas.
Earlier, I wrote about Amazon’s efforts to broaden its employees’ skill sets. Doing so inherently breeds best-practice sharing and gives employees the chance to pursue their big idea, even by pursuing a new role.
Granted, few companies are as big as Amazon and have as many opportunities for an employee to just up and leave their current job to pursue a passion elsewhere within the company. But the spirit is applicable. It’s about thinking of out-of-the-box ways to support employees in pursuing their innovative ideas.
5. Nurture creativity and you’ll foster innovation.
You can’t have innovation without creativity, and Amazon supports creativity almost as a pursuit in and of itself. The company has its Expressions Lab, which allows employees to attend workshops and creative classes; the Spheres, a place to conduct meetings in a botanical setting; and even the Amazon Symphony Orchestra, an all-employee orchestra that plays community concerts.
Breeding creativity is definitely something you can do at your company, too. It doesn’t have to be on the scale of Amazon. It just needs to be visible and genuine.
6. Invest in tomorrow’s innovators.
The companies most dedicated to innovation have a long-term view on the pursuit. In the case of Amazon, it has its Future Engineer program, which expands computer science education access for more than 10 million students. The goal is to give more students the chance to be innovators in health care, arts, education, tech, and more. The investment doesn’t even ensure direct benefit back to Amazon, other than the fact that it feeds the overall culture of innovation Amazon is building.
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