Working backwards

A recent presentation on Journey mapping reminded me of a different approach for designing solutions that I learned at Amazon:

Working backwards (from the customer experience).

Amazon uses this process for every single project. If there has ever been a secret sauce to what Amazon does, it’s the working backwards process.

The idea is to not start from the current situation and constraints, but rather to forget all that for a while and start from the end state. What SHOULD the perfect customer experience be? What is the perfect end state? What would we do if we were in an unconstrained situation?

Changing your mindset to that view before kicking off a project or designing a solution will allow you to think outside the box. You will think about what the right approach is, not what the easiest next step will be. You will think about what’s right for the customer, not about how hard it is to make necessary changes.

After you have clarity on the end state, you start working backwards. In order to get to that end state, what interim state do you need to reach before? What’s the stage before that? – Rinse and repeat until you reach all the way back to your current status quo.

The HUGE benefit is that you start from where you want to be in the future as opposed to what the next incremental state is from where you are now. You will find that you will end up in vastly different places with these two approaches.

Don’t be frustrated though. In my time with Amazon, I found that working backwards is the hardest mental model to teach. Every single new employee struggled and it took them many attempts until they actually worked backwards from an ideal end state. This could take months of intellectual struggle. We were all raised to think incrementally, and those thought patterns are burned into our brains.

Stop thinking incrementally – think backwards!

So, how does Amazon do the working backwards process?

They start with a press release. The very first thing one does when pitching or starting a project is to write what the press release at launch should look like. How is this new solution different, what is the new customer experience, what are the new benefits?

This is one page – never more. If it generates enough excitement, the work begins, digging into constraints, problems to overcome, and investments that will be required. The important part is that you have to drop all your knowledge of constraints or challenges when writing the one-page press release.

That’s how Prime, one-day shipping, Alexa, and everything else you’ve ever seen from Amazon were born.


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