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10x Disagree and Commit
Leveraging this Amazon leadership principle to build high performing teams
Born in 1994, and survivor of two crashes (the 2001 dot com crash, and the 2008 financial crash), Amazon has undeniably changed the world around us in many ways by striving to become earth's most customer-centric company. While they started selling books online, over the past two decades of relentless execution, they now have significant footprints in many industries - E-commerce, Cloud Computing, Artificial intelligence, Consumer electronics, Entertainment, Digital distribution, Self-driving cars, Supermarkets. Amazon has famously and very publicly codified their leadership principles that help drive their day to day execution. One of my favorite principles is Disagree & Commit (reproduced below) - the subject of this essay.
Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit
Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.
There are two pervasive problems I see with most organizations, (i) scarce disagreements, and (ii) timid commitments - both of these are signs of dysfunctions in an organization.
“I believe disagreement is the wellspring of great ideas and great companies – but only if you harness the conflict constructively.” — Ray Dalio
You can trace the genesis of every novel idea, every new product, every new process to a thoughtful action-oriented disagreement. Yet, when some of these ideas flourish and the product organization matures, they put a bureaucracy in place that stifles innovation. I vividly remember an animated discussion during my startup days where two lead engineers debated very passionately about architectural merits and demerits of two proposals on the table, and the meeting unceremoniously ended with one the engineers walking out of the room in frustration, and the other engineer quickly following the suit. They reconvened at their smoke break point, discussed some more, and came back with a decision. This was never repeated after the startup was acquired by a big company. Not suggesting that every meeting needs to be this loud or contentious, and we definitely want to be respectful throughout, but as leaders we come too conflict averse, and subconsciously surround ourselves with “yes men” - which then sets the tone for the organization.
This New Yorker article from 2017 serves as a stark warning for things to come under former president Trump, and McPherson’s response below clearly articulates the risk of unquestioned loyalty.
In April, 1965, the leaders of India and Pakistan, nations then on the brink of war, canceled meetings with President Lyndon Johnson, and L.B.J. thought he knew why. While flying to Texas aboard Air Force One, he huddled with his speechwriter, Dick Goodwin. “Do you know there are some disloyal Kennedy people over at the State Department who are trying to get me; that’s why they stirred things up?” Johnson asked. “I didn’t know that,” Goodwin replied. “Well, there are,” Johnson said, “They didn’t get me this time, but they’ll keep trying.” Johnson’s obsession with his political rival, Robert Kennedy, had, by that time, become so overpowering—and his insistence on “all-out loyalty” so pronounced—that it was bogging down the Presidential-appointments process and driving good men out of government. “We cannot afford to lose them,” Harry McPherson, the White House counsel, warned Johnson in a bravely blunt memo. “Neither, in my opinion, can we afford to give them a polygraph-loyalty test. . . . If the word gets around that one has to put on horse-blinders to work for you, you will probably come out with a bunch of clipped yes-men who are afraid of their own shadows and terrified of yours.”
Thoughtful, constructive and action-oriented disagreements are not just vital for good business, but good for society at large. As leaders, know that power differential is titled in your favor. That means, it’s upon you to work extra hard to create a psychologically safe environment for people to come together and share their disagreements as transparently as possible. This is the single best investment you can make towards the culture.
Committing to a decision where you had strong disagreements requires a great deal of professional maturity, but it’s a muscle that can be developed through practice. The key is to see the decision in alignment with business priority rather than personal objectives, not always easy, but absolutely the right thing to do. This is where the timidity creeps in. Sometimes you end up committing to a decision just for the heck of it, and at the first possible crisis, you withdraw your support, rather than working through the challenges to make it successful. In some instances, I have observed even more pathological behavior, where either due to ego or distasteful agendas, you covertly work on sabotaging the decision, and when it’s fully broken apart, play “told you so!” rhetoric. If you find yourself in an organization where this is practiced widely, and are powerless to change the culture, run!
One psychological “trick” I often deploy during contentious discussions, is to have each party advocate for the other's position. This may sound like a hack, and that’s exactly what it is. I have seen it work wonders, as in the process of advocating for a different position than yours, you’re forced to see strong points of the opposing arguments, you’re forced to step outside your comfort zone and in this process your brain becomes a little more open to more possibilities.
Between a Rock and a Hard Place
At Cisco, I had inherited a piece of software that relied on undocumented APIs into our ecosystem partner to deliver snapshots, a key piece of data protection functionality. To eliminate this dependency, we needed to embark on a 9 month development across core file system features, data protection service and 3rd party backup vendors. At the same time, the core business was facing extreme competitive pressure, which resulted in us focusing on, well, survival. Then, one day, all of a sudden, the undocumented APIs was yanked with the ecosystem partner firmware upgrade, and backup operations started failing for our customers. Having already done the technical investigation into alternate implementation, the leadership directive was pretty clear - double down on this alternate implementation and move away from this partner dependency ASAP while working with the field operations team to reconfigure backup with a different, inefficient, and competitor’s solution. I advocated for a much bolder strategy - convince the ecosystem partner to support snapshots natively. I knew this was a risky proposal. It was potentially fraught with legal nightmare, but I had built deep relations with key personnel within the partner's organization, which gave me confidence.
My proposal was deemed too risky and was sent to legal for additional vetting, while I agreed to start implementing an alternate design for native snapshots. I diverted all my resources towards this plan - away from an innovative low-cost backup solution for the edge computing market - and quickly put together an optimized project plan to deliver MVP functionality within six months. In parallel, I challenged and collaborated with legal and business to draft a step by step proposal on how I would approach the ecosystem partner - the gist was to show them the “pain” our common customers were having and joint reputation hit we both were taking, a shared business opportunity, and a possible approach to find a quick solution out of this jam. I personally committed to testing their early bits, and later, when it really got some momentum, ran joint engineering sync across the two organizations. Within two months, we had a solution that was 30% better than our previous implementation (based on undocumented APIs), and saved us four months, 16 engineers worth of development time. This was a tightrope walk, and truly a rare opportunity to bring competing organizations together to deliver on a customer pain point!