Jeff Bezos on Wandering, Experimenting, and Scale

Jeff Bezos’s 2018 letter to shareholders is required reading, as usual. Here are some gems:

On wandering vs efficiency:

Sometimes (often actually) in business, you do know where you’re going, and when you do, you can be efficient. Put in place a plan and execute. In contrast, wandering in business is not efficient … but it’s also not random. It’s guided – by hunch, gut, intuition, curiosity, and powered by a deep conviction that the prize for customers is big enough that it’s worth being a little messy and tangential to find our way there. Wandering is an essential counter-balance to efficiency. You need to employ both. The outsized discoveries – the “non-linear” ones – are highly likely to require wandering.

On product development and listening to the customer vs inventing on their behalf:

Much of what we build at AWS is based on listening to customers. It’s critical to ask customers what they want, listen carefully to their answers, and figure out a plan to provide it thoughtfully and quickly (speed matters in business!). No business could thrive without that kind of customer obsession. But it’s also not enough. The biggest needle movers will be things that customers don’t know to ask for. We must invent on their behalf. We have to tap into our own inner imagination about what’s possible.

AWS itself – as a whole – is an example. No one asked for AWS. No one. Turns out the world was in fact ready and hungry for an offering like AWS but didn’t know it. We had a hunch, followed our curiosity, took the necessary financial risks, and began building – reworking, experimenting, and iterating countless times as we proceeded.

Ross Mayfield’s tweet on this is also worth noting:

On scaling and failed experiments:

As a company grows, everything needs to scale, including the size of your failed experiments. If the size of your failures isn’t growing, you’re not going to be inventing at a size that can actually move the needle. Amazon will be experimenting at the right scale for a company of our size if we occasionally have multibillion-dollar failures. Of course, we won’t undertake such experiments cavalierly. We will work hard to make them good bets, but not all good bets will ultimately pay out. This kind of large-scale risk taking is part of the service we as a large company can provide to our customers and to society. The good news for shareowners is that a single big winning bet can more than cover the cost of many losers.

Quick Thoughts on BarCampBlock

I emerged from my summer hermitdom to attend parts of BarCampBlock this past weekend. My favorite part of Bar Camp was actually something I missed because I overslept on Saturday morning: the unveiling of the original Bar Camp attendee list (photo by Chris Heuer):    (MJC)    (MJD)

This is such a wonderful picture on so many levels. Seeing it brought back vivid memories of the first Bar Camp: the sense of excitement about what a few passionate folks had created in a ridiculously short amount of time, the forging of new friendships and the strengthening of old ones. This little touch created a strong sense of continuity between the first camp, this third year anniversary celebration, and everything in-between. It also demonstrated the subtle difference between holding space well and simply holding space. Masters of this art understand the importance of the artifact, of Leave A Trail.    (MJE)

I didn’t get to stay as long as I would have liked, but here are some quick thoughts on what I did see:    (MJF)

  • The organizers (Chris Messina, Tara Hunt, Ross Mayfield, Liz Henry, and Tantek Celik) and volunteers did an incredible job of making everything run smoothly. The hardest part of a collaborative event isn’t the process; it’s logistics. In this particular case, the organizers had to deal with a sudden spike in registrations — 900 to be exact — with no clue as to the actual number who would show up (564 on Saturday, 260 on Sunday) and a location literally spread out over 11 locations within a few square blocks. When I saw various organizers on Saturday morning, I noted with surprise how calm everything was, and everyone just looked at me and laughed. There’s a ton amount of behind-the-scenes hard work and stress required to make any event run smoothly. Kudos to all who contributed.    (MJG)
  • There were a ton of first-timers there. I saw several people I knew, and many more I didn’t. I like to see about 25 percent yield of repeat attendees at events like these, and this came close to that. I think that’s outstanding. The danger of events like these is that they become cliques. That wasn’t the case with this Bar Camp. In some ways, I think the oversaturation of networking events in the Bay Area — including many Bar Camp spin-offs — as well as the spirit of Bar Camp prevented this from happening.    (MJH)
  • I heard a few folks comment on the lack of depth in the sessions, and I experienced some of this myself firsthand. This is common at open, collaborative events, but most folks misunderstand what this means. Open Space-ish events are particularly conducive to building Shared Language among disparate folks. Deeper learning and collaboration often occur as a result, but it doesn’t necessarily happen at the event itself. You can facilitate this deeper learning at events by making them more intentional — Internet Identity Workshop is a great example of this — but Bar Camps are more meta than that.    (MJI)
  • I loved the Continuous Learning, not just from the Bar Camps that the organizers had played an active role in, but from the wider Bar Camp community. The demo party, for example, was an idea borrowed from Bar Camp Toronto, and while the execution needed tweaking, I loved the spirit of experimentation.    (MJN)

More good thoughts from Liz, Ross, and Tara.    (MJJ)

Networked Tools and the Email Bottleneck

My friend and colleague, Tony Christopher, recently wrote a wonderful paper entitled, “Tools for Teams: Beyond the Email Bottleneck.” There are two things I really like about the paper, and there’s one thing I want to nitpick here.    (MDS)

First, the good stuff. Tony introduces a new term, “networked tools,” to connote tools that are on the network. These include shared calendars, file repositories, and so forth. Why is this useful? For starters, most people have no idea what a collaborative tool is, and that includes many folks who are ostensibly in the business.    (MDT)

What is a collaborative tool? It’s a tool that facilitates collaboration. Certainly, a shared authoring tool like a Wiki has affordances that facilitate collaboration. But a plain old text editor is just as legitimately a collaboration tool, because it can also be used to facilitate collaboration (for example, when used on a Shared Display).    (MDU)

When most people talk about collaborative tools, what they’re really talking about are networked tools, which is why I think Tony’s term is much more apt.    (MDV)

The main point of Tony’s paper is not to invent a new term, but to shift the focus away from the tool and onto an organization’s needs and processes. His specific advice is a bit oriented towards larger organizations, but the essence of his argument is true for everyone.    (MDW)

My only nitpick with Tony’s paper is that he chooses to pick on email, a favorite practice of another person I like to nitpick on this point, Ross Mayfield. (In fairness to Ross, he’s clearly being a troublemaker — or a good CEO — when he declares email dead, as he’s also written clearly about using email effectively in the context of collaboration. And he’s spot on about occupational spam.) Tony writes:    (MDX)

Email undermines the centralized accumulation of knowledge that could benefit the organization both during the project and long after it’s over. Organizations that have not evolved from email to a broader set of networked tools face lost oportunities and hidden costs.    (MDY)

It’s a bit of a red herring to blame email, because email is a Swiss Army knife. You can do a bunch of things with it, but you’ve got to figure out how to take advantage of this flexibility. This is even more difficult with groups, because if some folks are using their email differently from others, its effectiveness as a collaboration tool drops.    (MDZ)

I suspect that most organizations would see orders of magnitude improvements in how they collaborated if they went through the steps that Tony suggested, then reexamined how they could use email more effectively.    (ME0)

A very simple example of what I mean came out of a conversation with Tara Hunt earlier this week. I was talking to Tara and Chris Messina about their work to move the Freecycle community to something more appropriate to their needs. I observed that while Freecycle could definitely use a better support tool, it’s a great example of how you can leverage a simple mailing list to do amazing collaborative work.    (ME1)

Tara noted that there are 3.5 million people currently on Freecycle, which is amazing. She also observed, “Imagine how many people they would have if the tool were better.” A fair point indeed. When you’ve thought carefully about your patterns and you’ve reached the limit of your tools, the next step for coevolution is to improve your tools. Freecycle — currently serving 3.5 million people effectively — is definitely at that point. Most organizations are not.    (ME2)

More on the Price of Openness

I’m a very private person. On the surface, that may be hard to believe, coming from someone who blogs regularly, who has a public Flickr stream, and who interacts regularly with tons of people, most of whom I like. But it’s not news to anyone who knows me. When it comes to my work, I’m very transparent. Again, this blog is a testament to that. When it comes to me personally and the people I care about, I can be as tight as a clam.    (M1Y)

Over the years, I’ve gotten better at walking the boundary, maintaining my privacy without completely walling myself off from others. I’ve lowered the outer walls a bit, and my life is much richer for it. But the walls are still there. It’s my own personal Intimacy Gradient. Frankly, those boundaries are what allow me to live a somewhat public life and stay sane. It’s reminiscent of Wonko The Sane in Douglas Adams‘s So Long, and Thanks for All The Fish. The world really can be an asylum, and it’s important to have a sanctuary from that.    (M1Z)

I don’t self-identify as a blogger. When bloggers express outrage about something, I don’t say to myself, “Ah yes, those are my people.” I have many friends and colleagues who blog, several prominently, but I don’t think of them as bloggers either. I think of them as people I respect and care about. Sometimes, these friends become the center of online idiocy, and in those times, I try to remind them to remember the people and the things that are really important to them. What happens outside of that circle doesn’t matter as much, and it helps to be reminded of that.    (M20)

I don’t know Kathy Sierra personally, but I feel bad about what happened to her, and I wish her the best. It won’t be the last time that something ridiculous like this happens, and next time, it very well may happen to someone I do know, maybe even me. Incidents like these really force you to stop and think.    (M21)

In response to this fiasco, Ross Mayfield made a profound observation:    (M22)

Being open on the web matters. Transparency is good. Society values it more every day and it is the underlying force field of the blogosphere. But it is rare to hear horror stories of being too closed, and frequent for being open. Maybe being too closed makes you unheard to begin with. Maybe it means isolation which is our greatest fear. Maybe it also means corruption when conspired.    (M23)

Last year, I wrote of a far less serious case where people were paying the price of openness. And I concluded that the cost was always worth it in the end, because authenticity will always win. It means a very different thing in this context, but it still applies.    (M24)

Still, openness does not mean without boundaries. When we think of collaboration and collaborative spaces, we must not forget the importance of Intimacy Gradients. This is a good personal lesson as well.    (M25)

Wikipedia Virgin No More

Yesterday, Erik Moeller asked me to look at the Wikipedia entry on Intellipedia. Curious as to the timing of the request, I checked my feeds, and sure enough, a few articles on Intellipedia had cropped up.    (LGQ)

I figured the best people to review the accuracy of the article were those involved, so I passed Erik’s request along to them. However, in reviewing the article myself, I noticed that somebody had linked to my picture of the Intellipedia shovel, along with a short description. The description was slightly off, so I decided to fix it. In doing so, I lost my Wikipedia virginity.    (LGR)

If you want to be technical about it, I wasn’t a real Wikipedia virgin. I’ve vandalized the site anonymously on more than one occasion. That’s right, vandalized. It was a cool trick I picked up from Ross Mayfield as a way to demonstrate in front of a live audience that yes, anyone really can edit Wikipedia, and more importantly, that Wikipedia is self-healing. I don’t do it anymore, because the bots have gotten smarter, thus eliminating one of the main points of the demonstration.    (LGS)

The first time I told this story to Wikipedians was when I was introducing myself at the Hacking Days Wiki developers summit at Wikimania 2005. I said, “I’ve never edited Wikipedia, but I have vandalized it on more than one occasions.” I thought it was pretty funny, but no one laughed. It could have been that people had a hard time picking up on the irony in English, but I think people just didn’t think it was funny. So for all of you Wikipedians hearing this story for the first time, blame Ross.    (LGT)

I nearly edited Wikipedia for real in 2004, when I was finishing up my research on Open Source adoption in Brazil. In my original draft, I told some great stories about the rise of grassroot communities in Brazil, and to my horror, the editors cut them out. I decided to insert them into Wikipedia, but I never got around to it. Maybe I’ll revisit this, especially now that Lula is back in the news.    (LGU)

I’ve spoken at both Wikimanias, and I’ve talked to many folks about Wikipedia, so I’ve always felt a little guilty about not having actually edited it. Then at this year’s Wikimania, I learned that Ward Cunningham hasn’t edited it yet either. (It’s captured on this recording.) That helped, but now the guilt is gone for good.    (LGV)

How does it feel to have finally edited it? To be honest, it’s no different than editing any other Wiki. Personally, I find that really cool. It’s further confirmation that as big as Wikipedia has become, at its core, it’s still just a Wiki. It reminds of the original exchange between Jimbo Wales and Ward Cunningham on Ward’s Wiki about Wikipedia:    (LGW)

My question, to this esteemed Wiki community, is this: Do you think that a Wiki could successfully generate a useful encyclopedia? — Jimbo Wales    (LGX)

Yes, but in the end it wouldn’t be an encyclopedia. It would be a wiki. — Ward Cunningham    (LGY)

Of course, my assessment isn’t quite fair, either. I haven’t experienced a Wikipedia edit war first-hand or a negotiation over Neutral Point Of View. More things to look forward to!    (LGZ)