How to innovate like Amazon

How to innovate like Amazon

Gather together a group of publishers and booksellers and the conversation will inevitably turn to Amazon. The online giant has disrupted our sector on a regular basis with its relentless quest for new inventions. But rather than grumble, we have lots learn from this innovation powerhouse in terms of culture, processes and ways of working.

I asked Diane Bartoli to give us an insider's take on just how Amazon manages to stay one step ahead of the crowd. Bartoli (left) is general manager for higher education at Kindle. She has responsibility for digital learning products and part of her remit is ‘things yet to be invented’.

Bartoli's career history includes a stint as a literary agent as well as time working in traditional book publishing. Back then, there was a sense that when a book was published, it was done - and you moved on to the next product. That world has disappeared. “Product management has changed,” she said, “in that software products are living, breathing and constantly changing. And that means a different set of skills in terms of how you engage with customers and the products themselves.”

When recruiting, Bartoli looks for people who are fearless, excited by uncertainly and keen to adventure into the unknown - which after all, is the landscape of invention. “When you’re trying to invent something new, or you’re trying to figure out how to solve a problem in way that it hasn’t been solved before, you need to be comfortable not knowing exactly what the answer’s going to be.”

This level of uncertainty can make some people anxious. The counter balance is the clear sense of direction from Amazon’s leadership. Each year founder and CEO Jeff Bezos writes a letter to shareholders, and this year’s rallying call offered four essentials for staying relevant. Top of the list was ‘customer obsession’.

I asked Bartoli what customer obsession means for staff and she defines it as: people who are completely consumed by making customers happy and solving customer problems. This starts by talking to customers – not to sell them something but to understand them better.  “I want to look for opportunities to find some rock that hasn’t been turned over," she says. "Getting at that interesting stuff is often a very specific kind of asking for the detail.”

Her go-to opener is getting people to walk her through their day. By asking specific questions about their schedule, and how they spend their time, she finds that she can uncover hidden gems. She uses the ‘Five Whys’ - where you ask a question and keep digging to find out what lies underneath people’s automatic behaviour, actions and thought processes, such as why they chose a certain book to read.

When staff do customer interviews for the first time, she tells them to prepare a few questions, but to keep it loose. “I give this instruction: think about three or four, no more than five questions to hang this whole conversation around. And follow the interesting leads, so don’t be overly wedded to, ‘oh I didn’t get to question number four!’”

Bartoli quotes mystical poet Rilke’s advice to ‘live the questions’ and immerse yourself in not knowing the answers. That doesn’t involve going to an Alpine retreat, lighting incense and meditating until the answers arrive, but instead actively trying out different stuff. For Bartoli, product development is a learning cycle: “The key is making sure that when you try stuff, no lesson is missed, that you’re capturing learning from every time you tried something. If something has failed, which it inevitably will in some fashion, why did it fail? And what parts potentially succeeded? And what do we retain from this to inform the next experiment that we do?”

Entrepreneur-style, Bartoli believes that it is only through failure that you innovate. She says it is much like learning to ski or ice skate where, if you’re not falling, you’re not actually learning. Bartoli sees innovation as a team sport and her role as general manager is to empower her team to have everything they need to advance quickly. The people who lead innovation best, according to Bartoli, are those that tap into the imagination of everyone in the room: “The best leaders are the ones that are able to inspire the most interesting work from the people that work for them.”

By sharing his ‘North Star’ for each year, Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos, inspires staff at all levels to keep innovating. They have a clear sense of direction, yet the route is unknown. It is by creating a culture that embraces ambiguity which makes Amazon such a great innovator.

So, as we gaze at Amazon with fear and admiration, we can also be inspired to act innovatively. Most of what Bartoli told me is sound business advice – have great leaders who motivate their workforce and support their staff to experiment, whilst accepting failure as inevitable part of the process.

As publishers, we too can build a culture for innovation. And who knows, if we do - perhaps we’ll be able to disrupt the disrupter.

Diane Bartoli was one of many inspiring leaders I’ve spoken to over the past few months. I’m writing a book that shares the secrets of innovation experts, startup founders and digital doyens on how to make ideas happen – in the workplace or on a side hustle. The importance of customer focus and user testing has come up time and again in interviews, so I’m determined to apply these principles to my writing – adopting a ‘Lean’, user-centred, feedback process. If you fancy joining my band of beta readers just fill out this survey and I’ll bring you on board.