How Working Backwards changed my mind about remote work

Why Amazonian thinking and communication tools are turning me into a remote work optimist.

We are now working almost twice the number of unpaid hours at the office since the beginning of 2020 reports the UK Office of National Statistics.

Despite having gone through the most digitally mediated year of our existence, it appears even with extended working hours, we prefer this new normal. A Microsoft survey revealed that 73% of employees hope remote work options will continue, with some studies even suggesting we would even take a 7.8% pay cut for the privilege.

Though I enjoy my new flexible freedoms, I wonder at what cost they come. Specifically, how does working from home all the time impact our productivity and creativity?

Some evidence supports productivity gains by working from home, but the benefits don’t appear equally distributed. I’ve noticed news coverage tends to cite studies that focus on jobs with routine or repetitive tasks like working in call centres or could be attributed to panic working.

Only recently has research begun to look at jobs that require more complex or collaborative work. A study from Maastricht University and Erasmus University showed that being in-person was superior when performing complex, urgent or problem-solving tasks. Similarly, authors from a Deutsche Bank report noted that employees performing “creative and collaborative tasks without fixed outcomes” tended to struggle in remote teams.

Working as a remote-first product manager for the last 18-months, I can relate. Right now, our ways of working feel like we took the worst of the office environment and stuffed the rest with 30-minute meetings. In a scramble to embrace digital platforms from simply being in our lives to becoming our breadline, we didn’t stop to think about the best ways to improve remote collaboration.

However, I may have discovered a path forward. Upon finishing ‘Working Backwards’, a book by Amazon executives Colin Bryar and Bill Carr, I realised that Amazon may have inadvertently solved many problems that plague creative remote teams.

At its core, the book describes a set of principles and templates that enable teams to both communicate and focus intensely on tackling practical problems. Their framework, which builds upon the principles of long-term thinking, customer obsession, eagerness to invent, and operational excellence, is ideal for uniting a decentralised group. It tackles one of the biggest problems of remote work: the need to be readily available. In other words, the ability to work asynchronously.

The open office was designed around synchronicity — if you needed an answer, you could simply interrupt the person sitting next to you. This problem only got worse when we went remote: Chat apps are easy to initiate and expect an immediate response, only one person can speak at a time in video calls (plus no side-chats) etc.

What we want to do is take advantage of our less interruptible home environments. To work asynchronously enables teams to articulate, share, think and develop creative solutions without all the noise, yet benefit from the valuable debate and feedback a team can provide.

The following are some of the key ideas I’ve stolen from Working Backwards, which I believe will help us achieve this better way of working.

PowerPoint is dead and reading killed it

In the movie adaption of Working Backwards, there will be a scene of the senior Amazon management hunched over desktop screens with baffled expressions. It’s 2004, and their boss, Jeff Bezos, has just banned PowerPoint:

From: Bezos, Jeff
Sent: Wednesday, June 09, 2004 6:02PM
To: [REDACTED]
Subject: Re: No powerpoint presentations from now on at steam
A little more to help with the question “why.”
Well structured, narrative text is what we’re after rather than just text. If someone builds a list of bullet points in word, that would be just as bad as powerpoint.
The reason writing a good 4 page memo is harder than “writing” a 20 page powerpoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what, and how things are related.
Powerpoint-style presentations somehow give permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas. — Jeff

Edward Tufte, an American statistician, served as the inspiration for Bezos’s decision. “For serious presentations”, Tufte writes, “it will be useful to replace PowerPoint slides with paper handouts showing words, numbers, data graphics, images together. High-resolution handouts allow viewers to contextualise, compare, narrate, and recast evidence.”

Jeff’s interpretation was that tools like PowerPoint strip a discussion of important nuance. Even when a presentation includes supporting information like notes or audio, it’s never enough. Worse, a persuasive speaker can easily mislead an audience, whilst a less gifted orator can rob a fantastic idea of consideration.

This lead to Amazon’s development of two narrative templates. The first is the “Six-Pager” and is used to describe, review, or propose just about any type of idea, process, or business. The second is the “Press Release”, which helps articulate the value of new products by ‘working backwards’ from their ideal impact. I’ll go deeper into these in the next section.

First, we need to understand the reason for this change from presentation to written templates. The authors claim this boils down to the fact that complicated problems require more information to make informed decisions than an hour-long presentation can hope to deliver.

A written narrative, by contrast, can deliver seven to nine times as much information in the same amount of time, with Tufte suggesting people can read 3 times faster than a regular presenter can speak.

“the slovenliness of PowerPoint makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” – Edward Tufte

Another thing holding back presentations is that although the linear progression of slides makes them easier to produce, it becomes challenging for an audience to relate one idea to another. Forcing the presenter to write with narrative requires them to better understand the interconnectedness of their ideas, which in turn helps reduce the cognitive load of their audience.

It’s not just Amazon doing this; it also seems Stripe has also started using long-form documents in their meetings.

“It means somebody can go deep, like all the way down, and then distil it back out to everybody else”, says Michael Siliski, Business Lead for Payment Experiences & Platforms, “It does require a lot of reading for sure, but the benefit is great clarity of thought on complex topics”.

Stripe found that by getting everyone from engineers to product managers to produce documents, it ensured the best ideas came through, not the loudest voices — “It facilitates the flow of information in a world where we’re increasingly remote”, says Michael.

Authors Colin and Bill from Working Backwards would agree. The authors argue that focusing on writing and reading over presenting helps make information more accessible and actionable. This approach puts emphasis on making meetings for thinking rather than passive information absorption.

You can achieve this by spending the first third of your meeting reading in silence (taking notes), and the remaining two-thirds discussing what was read. This discussion is facilitated by either going around the room asking for high-level feedback line by line or asking people to give all their feedback.

The goal is not to come up with great ideas but to create an environment where great ideas can happen. Individuals may be better at thinking creatively, but groups are much better at leveraging criticism and analysis to make those thoughts a successful reality.

A narrative levels the playing field for a team regardless of rank or timezone. It should facilitate theoretical discussion through Socratic debate to seek clarification, probe intention, offer insights and suggest refinements.

Write a narrative that works backwards

Let's take a look at what it takes to write a narrative. Thankfully the authors provide templates for both the ‘Six Pager’ and the ‘Press Release’. As previously mentioned, each is used to facilitate debate through the thoughtful description of ideas.

Compared with a tool like the lean canvas (which covers similar topics) the main difference is that narratives are designed to help better describe ideas by linking them to a more complete vision. Upon completing each section in the template, things become clearer for the reader and for you.

The Six Pager Template. A challenging document to write by design, the Six Pager encourages us to thoroughly think through our ideas. You will need to describe your thoughts in each of the following sections in 2400 characters or less:

  • Introduction — Like an executive summary. What's the big idea here?

  • The problem — What problem are you really trying to solve? Why is it valuable to your customer/user?

  • Inspiration/solution — What ideas, products, movies, comics etc inspired you to focus on this idea?

  • Proposal — What can we do to solve the problem?

  • Tenents — What principles and values should guide this idea?

  • Advantages for different users — What’s in it for the user, the customer, the company making this product?

  • Metrics of success — How do we know we are successful? What does quantifiable success look like?

  • How to do it — How do we build this thing?

  • Conclusion — Reflection on the above. Why it's important to do this?

One thing I like to do filling out Six Pagers is to start by writing out subheaders for each section. I find it hard to write good titles without understanding what is valuable to write about.

The Press Release Template. Shorter and quicker to complete than a six-pager, this tool is more focused on trying to envision radical new ideas. When writing you should aim to make this the actual press release you would wish to make public. It's a great litmus test of exciting ideas; upon completion, share it with a group and ask, “Does anyone get excited about this?”:

  • Heading: Name the product in a way the reader (i.e., your target customers) will understand “Blue Corp. announces the launch of Melinda, the smart mailbox.”

  • Subheading: Describe the customer for the product and what benefits they will gain from using it. “Melinda is the physical mailbox designed to securely receive and keep safe all your e-commerce and grocery deliveries.”

  • Summary Paragraph

  • Problem Paragraph

  • Solution Paragraph(s)

  • Quotes and Getting Started: Add one quote from your company’s spokesperson and a second quote from a hypothetical customer.

There is no way to write a six-page narrative memo and not have clear thinking.

At the end of each template, you should also consider writing an FAQ. FAQ’s consist of questions you imagine a customer (external) or your harshest critic (internal) would ask you.

A good FAQ should force us to consider an idea through different perspectives and assume the questions asked of us. If you find yourself unable to find any answers, that’s an opportunity for improvement. It's a very “working backwards” way of thinking.

“Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle,” writes former Pixar employee Emma Coats, who infamously tweeted Pixar’s 22 rules on storytelling, “Endings are hard; so get yours working up front”. Coats argue that people remember endings better than beginnings, and narratives help us achieve this.

Even if you are not planning to present an idea, writing is still an excellent tool for thinking. You can’t write clearly until you can think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard. At Pixar, Emma writes, “Writing ideas down and working through them should be part of your thought process … putting it on paper lets you start fixing it; otherwise, it remains a perfect idea in your head “.

Our Six Pager and Press Release templates help battle test perfect ideas. They force us to tackle unforeseen problems and step outside our comfort zones. Philosopher Henri Bergson best described this, “we need to encourage ourselves to think backwards from a future state to imagine the problems we will need to overcome to reduce the risk of failure and overcome laziness of imagination limited by the present”.

Strong Six Pagers don’t just make their case; they anticipate counter arguments, points of contention and statements easily misinterpreted. Complimented with an FAQ a written narratives ability to model a problem and reduce the risk of failure prevents many migraines later.

“Good product managers ask the press questions. Bad product managers answer any press question.” — Ben Horowitz, Good Product Manager Bad Product Manager

If writing a narrative sounds a bit daunting, try starting by filling out a lean canvas. It's a good way of generally collecting thoughts before diving deeper.

To help write FAQ’s you may want to try a technique called Mental Contrasting, popularised by professional poker player and psychologist Annie Duke. Duke states that positive visualisation is not enough to achieve a goal, “research shows mental contrasting — visualising the obstacles that are keeping you from your goal — will be far more effective”.

Imagine, for example, you want to lose weight. Don’t think about how good you will look; instead, think about all the desserts to which you’ll struggle to say “no” — that’s much more likely to motivate you to do the hard work. Similarly, think of your FAQ as all the things that could prevent you from achieving your objectives.

Personally, I’ve also found the Feynman Technique helpful for writing. This works by forcing us to express our thoughts and concepts in a language even a child would understand. Practising this we oddly gain a deeper understanding of what we are trying to say.

In search of the single-threaded leader: Who is in charge here?

You have probably heard about the two-pizza rule popularised at Amazon, i.e. the one that says no team should be larger than the number of people fed by two pizzas. You probably don’t know that this approach was only used for a short time at Amazon. That original idea was gradually refined then replaced by the model in use today: the single-threaded leader or STL.

What Amazon discovered was team size was not the most crucial factor for determining success. What was essential is having a single, empowered leader who “wakes up and just worries about that thing” — Jeff Wilke, Amazon’s head of consumer business.

The single-threaded leadership (STL) approach believes that having separable single-threaded teams with fewer organisational dependencies will be more productive than a conventional team. It’s a compelling idea as anyone who has watched teams grow only to find themselves gridlocked by interdependencies. Rather than delivering code, they are now negotiating synchronisation and unblocking issues.

Amazon found their most successful teams were ones where a single-threaded leader had the incentive and authority to remove dependencies and build solid technical foundations before innovating.

“The best way to fail at inventing something is by making it somebody’s part-time” — Dave Limp, Amazon’s VP of Kindle

I’ve had some personal experience of this. At the start of 2020, my team was collaborating alongside three other teams to build a search product. It was a reasonably complicated initiative requiring coordination between multiple individuals, leaders and services.

What helped was each team tech and product lead reported into a single leader who was held accountable for delivering this new service. Blockers, significant decisions and progress were channelled into this individual who moved quickly to remove dependency, enable teams to develop solutions and invest time to strengthen underlying infrastructure based on lessons learned.

Without our single authoritative leader driving this effort, I’m convinced cross-team communication and interdependency would have quickly gridlocked our efforts.

One could argue that the STL model works well because it moves complex systems towards simplicity. An STL is incentivised to understand the relationships and anticipate complexity between teams by breaking down interaction entities into their constituent parts.

If you don’t have a single-threaded leader, the next best thing you can do is lay down the groundwork for one. It begins by first working and agreeing on team principles, including understanding ownership boundaries, the team’s purpose, and metrics used to measure success.

“The best metric to ensure product success is Team Engagement”, states Daniel H. Pink, author of The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, “You evaluate a team’s engagement on its level of autonomy, mastery, and purpose.”.

The authors of Working Backwords state that you know you are heading in the right direction when a team can roll out changes without unnecessary coupling and coordination.

Metrics are masters of the universe

Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion. — W. Edwards Deming, statistician and author of The New Economics for Industry, Government, and Education

Amazon promotes that any metrics of success selected should fit into the key drivers of product growth. This is called the flywheel.

In contrast to traditional evaluation methods, the book’s authors emphasise looking for controllable input metrics rather than output metrics, as these will have the most significant impact.

Working Backwards explains that founder Jeff Bezos was inspired to draw the Amazon flywheel after reading “Good to Great” by Jim Collins. His illustration (shown above) nicely depicts how focusing on controllable input metrics around the user experience encourages more customers to return, which attracts more sellers, who then sell more products, which leads to a better user experience. It’s like a self-fulfilling product prophecy.

To help teams construct their own flywheels, Amazon set up a group called the S-Team. The S-Team sets top-line metrics for the organisation and determines what input metrics would result in desired business outcomes. These decisions are filtered down to teams who then put their own success metrics using a bottom-up approach.

For example, an actually S-Team goal could be as specific as “Add 500 new products in the amazon.fr Musical Instruments category” (100 products in Q1, 200 in Q2)”, or “Ensure 99.99 per cent of all calls to software service ‘Y’ are successfully responded to within 10 milliseconds”.

Having a shared understanding of the top-line metrics limits the damage a single persuasive manager can do. Holding everyone accountable for the outcome of hard-line metrics facilitates healthy debate about what is worth working on.

Input metrics specifically are great because they force us to think about what we can actually control and impact. Writer Darius Foroux sums this up nicely, “Instead of looking at outcomes, you look at actions. The funny thing is that the less you obsess about the outcomes, the easier things will come to you. When you only focus on the process, you know you’re doing it right.”

The idea is certainly not limited to Amazon. In their book Hacking Growth, authors Morgan Brown and Sean Ellis suggest there are three questions you can ask yourself to hone your growth equation:

  • Does the value metric align with where your customer perceives value?

  • Does the metric scale as the customer uses the product more?

  • Is it easy to understand?

Remember, any metrics you arrive at should ideally be changeable, understandable and ideally a rate, ratio or correlative.

You want metrics that encourage a team to think end to end and independently achieve impactful goals. When everyone asks themselves what they accomplished this year, success should be measured in the absence of debate required to answer.

The good steward

For every great idea, operating principle or model, there will be transgressions. This is why we need to talk about Stewardship.

Though metrics can help focus a group, there is always a risk of optimising for success without considering the bigger picture.

For example, in a bid to hit quarterly goals, teams may overspend marketing to boost sales but will put off hiring engineers to pay off technical debt.

“Focusing on results might be good for short-term performance, but it can be an obstacle to long-term learning”, states psychologist Adam Grant.

Amazon tackles this by looking for ways to reward individuals based on an entire organisations performance like stock-based compensation, to eliminate selfish and costly decisions.

The wrong kind of compensation can cause misalignment in two ways:

  1. By rewarding short-term goals at the expense of long-term value creation.

  2. By rewarding the achievement of localised departmental milestones whether or not they benefit the whole company.

Steve Jobs described a similar situation once when speaking at MIT. He asked, “How many here from consulting?”, an eager wave of hands rose in from the audience, “Oh, that’s bad.” Jobs replied, “A mind is too important to waste.”

The audience uncomfortably protested — what did he mean exactly? Jobs responded that without owning something over an extended period — like a few years — where one has the opportunity to take responsibility for one’s recommendations and accumulate scar tissue for mistakes along the way, one learns only a fraction of what one can.

“It’s like a picture of a banana”, he described. “You might get a very accurate picture, but it’s only two dimensional. And without the experience of actually doing it, you never get three dimensional”. Without being able to taste your banana or being held accountable for next year’s crop, how can we trust the best decisions for growing it are made?

Roger Martin, author and former dean of the Rotman School of Management, builds on this idea, “We end up doing what is defendable rather than what’s right”. Martin’s concern is that teams forced into a 100% efficiency without long-term compensation kill themselves sometime in the future.

Anyone who has inherited a poorly conceived project has suffered because of this. Don’t become part of the problem; break the cycle with better stewardship.

“Without the desire to look to imagine and care about a world beyond our current horizon we will fail to do all we can to build a better future”, says philosopher Isaiah Berlin.

Apart from setting up compensation with rewards long-term outcomes, good stewardship at work involves stopping and thinking about ultimate consequences. Try asking yourself these two questions:

  • How do you plan for a scenario where the worst person in the world gets their hands on what you are creating?

  • How would you incentivise them to use it the right way?

Roger Martin would argue the goal of these questions is not necessarily to get straight answers. Instead, it’s part of a process that forces us to slow down and consider a greater variety of logical pieces before making long-term decisions.

Stewardship at its best is when we prioritise getting good outcomes instead of focusing on existing problems. Only then can we prevent problems from occurring in the first place.

“I don’t view that we pay people to do things. That’s easy, to find people to do things. What’s harder is to find people to tell you what should be done.” — Steve Jobs speaking at MIT

Principles are like vegetables, you need to blend them

If I were to ask you right now what your team principles are, would you be able to tell me? I probably struggle, so perhaps we both can learn something in this last section.

First, let’s not confuse principles with company culture, the latter of which it seems people believe is rubbish.

Principles should be ideas to live by. Ideas that strive above all else to enable our autonomy. Operating principles help reduce dependency by allowing people to make their own decisions by understanding the methods of thinking they know are acceptable.

“Process saves us from the positivity of our intentions” — Seth Gordon, Director

Codifying principles into something that can become part of our process represents a considerable step forward for an organisation. Only by understanding the why of something can we hope to develop a how.

Infamous American cook Julia Child argued that principles are the difference between knowing how to follow a recipe and knowing how to really cook. People use recipe books to help prepare a meal, but these books rarely take the time to help us understand the underlying principles of cooking. We’re hungry for food, not knowledge.

Julia was fascinated by French cooking. She tried to teach herself but became increasingly frustrated with one failed dish after another. Upon opening the oven door, Julia never knew if she would find success or failure, and worse, she didn’t understand why any specific recipe would work.

Only after enrolling in a professional cookery school did things take a positive turn. “Learning to cook at the Cordon Bleu meant breaking down every dish into its smallest individual steps and doing each laborious and exhausting procedure by hand,” writes biographer Laura Shapiro. “Most important, she (Julia) could understand for the first time the principles governing how and why a recipe worked as it did.”

Julia learned that the difference in people who know how to cook is a grasp of the principles that makes food taste, look and smell great. They have the confidence to troubleshoot as they go and see much further than those who simply follow recipes.

In his influential book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey outlined the difference between principles and values. “Principles are rules or laws that are permanent, unchanging, and universal in nature.” states Covey, “Values are internal and subjective, and they may change over time”.

Though companies like Amazon advocate for principles that enable autonomy in the interest of increased productivity, Covey would encourage us to also consider promoting principles based on fairnessintegrity and honesty.

When writing your own principles, writer Chris Bergen asks us to consider the following ideas:

  • Be your compass to which you refer when you’re in doubt, evaluating opportunities or conflicting priorities, or need to take a stand.

  • Help you define your goals and values and choose between them when confronted with conflicting issues or opportunities.

  • Serve as a convenient reference point, so you never feel uncertain or find yourself searching for an answer.

  • Help you to understand the differences between right and wrong.

To be as impactful as possible, try writing principles using verbs. Not “integrity” but rather “the right thing to do”, not “innovation” but look at “problems from a different angle”. Articulating with verbs makes it clearer how to act in any situation.

Don’t worry about trying to identify all your principles upfront. Principles can be developed out of opportunity; in fact, getting stuck can help you identify the first principles of your situation.

What the authors of Working Backwards teach us is that no matter the approach, tools that improve communication, representation, autonomy and stewardship should be valued above all else.

Remote work can sometimes all too easily sideline individuals while create inequalities of information. Having systems around the democratisation of knowledge and principles on approaching a problem represent steps in the right direction.

Our goal should be to raise the collective intelligence of our teams to achieve the ultimate dream of a remote office — asynchronous productivity. The ability to independently contribute, debate, produce and grow without always needing to be available unlocks so much potential.

At all costs, we need to need to resist the hellish future of more screens, more video meetings and more messenger chats like those pitched by Microsoft. They only serve to exacerbate what is currently not working.

This is not to say that an asynchronous approach is without drawbacks. Individual contributors need to become far more competent at writing and reading prose. If everyone doesn’t contribute, a return to synchronicity is unavoidable.

I worry that being more asynchronous will alienate us from colleagues and reduce a sense of team identity. During the pandemic, we have been so focused on resilience that I think we lost sight of the power of kindness.

Simply receiving a genuine compliment, words of recognition or praise can help us feel more fulfilled, boost self-esteem, improve self-evaluations, and trigger positive emotions, decades of research haveshown.

Next time you start your day, take five minutes to write down who you appreciate: Who helped you? Who listened? Who made your day? Pause for a minute before writing and answer the following questions:

  • Authentic: Why am I recognising this person?

  • Specific: What did I experience or observe?

  • Process: What did it take for them to do what they did?

  • Impact: How did what they do impact the team or me?

Send that person a message thanking them, and if they really impressed you, ask if you can send one to their manager. If you want to learn more about giving a good compliment, be sure to check out this article by Christopher Littlefield.

Our most hopeful vision of a remote-first future should be centred around compassion, not convenience. Emotional, not artificial.

Apart from better planning tools, a path forward requires little technical innovation; it instead demands people care about people. An idea so laughably naïve yet so radically transformative.

A two thousand word memo may be the basis of better remote collaboration, but sometimes two can be just as impactful — thank you for reading.