July 9, 2018

Innovative leadership lessons from the world’s most innovative company

If you Google “world’s most innovative company”, you’re sure to find Amazon.com on the first page of your search results. You might not know this but when founder Jeff Bezos was first considering a name, he thought of Cadabra; another name he favoured was Relentless.

In fact, if you search for relentless.com now, where does this direct you to? That’s right, it redirects you to Amazon’s website.

The reason I shared this is because, like every other company – including yours if you own one – Amazon started out small. It did not become an overnight success. It has changed. It has failed a couple of times.

But Jeff Bezos has shown tremendous leadership and his people have shown great innovative thinking. So, here are some lessons we can learn from Amazon about innovative leadership.

First, you must empower and inspire your people. And what I mean by that is that you need to give your people purpose, direction and clarity about your company’s vision. What you can learn from Amazon in this sense is that Amazon had a clear vision and story.

Jeff Bezos knew from the get-go that he wanted his company to be “the everything store”. And that’s what Amazon became — a store that provides everything to everyone. Because of this vision and story, his people were able to clearly understand what it meant and which direction they had to go.

Second, you should embrace failure and understand that everything has its time. Failure is inevitable. But everything has its time and place too. Amazon was no exception.

For instance, Amazon invested on Pets.com, an e-commerce business providing pet supplies. In the early 2000s, the business was forced to close, becoming one of the most high-profile failures of the dot-com bubble era. When eBay first launched, Amazon tried to build its own auction system to compete. That failed also.

But despite that, Amazon did not punish failure but continued to push the business forward. If its people hadn’t been encouraged to take risks and fail, they wouldn’t have known whether certain ideas worked or not.

As Mr Bezos once said: “If you’re going to take bold bets, they’re going to be experiments, and if they’re experiments, you don’t know ahead of time if they’re going to work. Experiments are by their very nature prone to failure. But a few big successes compensate for dozens and dozens of things that didn’t work.”

Third, you have to empathise with your customers and get to know them. A good example from Amazon is its patented 1-Click Ordering. As the name suggests, this feature allows customers to order items on the website with just one click, given that you have already logged into your account and have a saved credit card for payment.

Amazon empathised with its customers when it came to the pain of having to go through several pages, from typing an address to choosing payment and delivery options. So to answer quick orders, it set up the one-click ordering feature.

Fourth, in this fast-moving world, you must exercise agility. Amazon’s way of staying agile is to keep teams small and people working autonomously. This ensures a startup style environment. This particular example may or may not work in your organisation, but it is still important to understand agility for your organisation to adapt to external changes.

Fifth, you should emphasise that innovation is just not about technology. Although Amazon is web-based, it has also innovated beyond technology. After all, 1-click ordering is essentially a feature within the technology sphere, but Amazon took a step beyond the technology and truly understood the customer experience. It innovated by redefining the business model.

Sixth, everything begins with mindset. Let’s return to the auction site failure. Even though it didn’t work as hoped, Jeff Bezos loved it. He even purchased an Ice Age cave bear skeleton for US$40,000 through the site and displays it in the lobby of company headquarters. The mindset and how you choose to see failure is important in pushing yourself and your people towards innovation and success.

At the end of the day, innovative leadership is not defined by one successful company. You define it for your organisation and take the lessons from others to apply in your organisation.

I leave you with one last piece of advice from Jeff Bezos: “We are stubborn on vision. We are flexible on details. … We don’t give up on things easily. Our third-party seller business is an example of that. It took us three tries to get the third-party seller business to work. We didn’t give up.”

Arinya Talerngsri is Chief Capability Officer and Managing Director at SEAC (formerly APMGroup) Southeast Asia’s leading executive, leadership and innovation capability development centre.  She can be reached by email at arinya_t@new.seasiacenter.com or www.linkedin.com/in/arinya-talerngsri-53b81aa

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