Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Be an Iterator, Not an Innovator

Fortune Magazine has gotten around to profiling one of the most compelling characters in internet history -- my former boss. I am always proud to read about Amazon's success; I still have a lot of love for the internet company that could.

"So how did he avoid the fate that befell so many dotcoms and turn Amazon into a real business? It's easy to believe that Jeff Bezos is one of the great innovators. But that's not exactly the case. His rise into Fortune 500-dom actually has little to do with innovation and more to do with iteration. If anything, Amazon demonstrates how a cutting-edge Internet company - of all things - can succeed slowly. The trick is taking a million tiny steps - and quickly learning from your missteps."

The last few weeks of my life have been consumed with launching an Employee Referral Program. Hardly innovative. Except that it was. In less than three weeks the team designed and executed a program that was exciting and effective. They managed to boost morale, increase referrals three-fold, cajole the marketing and creative teams into producing excellent supporting collateral. The buzz is great...folks are already excited about the next ER event. It's a layered approach, with an online component, communications, prizes and metrics. We hired additional admins to ensure that no referral fell into the black hole. We painted the lawn. In short, we did a million little things -- all of which we meticulously documented in a project plan -- that turned into one great thing. We moved quickly, but slowed down enough to document our progress and methods. Next time, the launch will be even better (hard to imagine).

The article about Jeff was eye-opening, in that it made me aware of what I took away from my time at Amazon. When I was there, we complained about the constant starting, then stopping, of projects. The developers, marketers, product mangers, buyers and recruiters, we all worked liked the devil, only to find ourselves re-directed to something new before projects reached fruition. I was there when the Jeff cooked up Two-Pizza Teams, for example. Suddenly I found myself recruiting "Two-Pizza Team Leads" instead of software developers. Six months later, we were back to calling them software developers. Ahh, the early days of the internet! Eventually, like others, the cycles became frustrating. Employees would become discouraged and, like me, leave for places where there was more structure, more planning.

But apparently, what I learned, was how to make things better, one step at a time. The iterative process of innovation. Taking a million tiny steps to acheive greatness.
Thanks, Jeff. And congratulations on the well-deserved success. Tell everyone I said hello!

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