Innovation at Amazon

Amazon’s Key to Unleashing Innovation. Inspiring Fresh Ideas

by Mar 26, 2024Culture, Entrepreneur, Growth

Every organization aspires to foster creativity and innovation, recognizing that breakthrough ideas can propel business growth to new heights. However, a harsh reality must be acknowledged: Humans are inherently resistant to change. Any departure from the safety of the status quo can trigger our fight-or-flight response.

This typically makes implementing any new idea or change difficult and sometimes impossible in the workplace. The status quo rules the roost–and leaves you vulnerable to another organization introducing the innovation that eats your lunch.

The good news is that Amazon, the global e-tailer, has uncovered a secret to unlocking innovation: by defaulting to saying yes.

Let me explain.

Rejected and Dejected

I feel confident saying that most of us have had the experience of pitching a brilliant new idea (at least it’s brilliant in our minds!) to our boss or manager only to see the person shake their head and say, “No, that’s not going to work.”

“But I just thought…” you might plead.

“You just leave the thinking to me,” your boss says. “Now get back to work.”

It might be worse if your manager responds by saying, “Maybe. Let me think about it. I’ll get back to you.” That’s just saying no using different words because, guess what, they will never get back to you.

And what happens when your brilliant new idea gets rejected? You feel dejected and disengaged. All that energy and excitement you had ebbed away. It will likely be a long time, if ever again, before you bring a new idea forward.

What a waste. What would things look like if every new idea could at least be discussed?

Default to Yes

Amazon’s policy of defaulting to yes is to unlock its workforce’s creativity and innovative thinking. It’s also connected to the company’s other leadership principles like “ownership,” “bias for action,” and “customer obsession.”

It’s quite literally the rule at Amazon that when an employee brings a new idea to their manager, the manager has to say yes unless they are prepared to defend their reasoning behind saying no.

In other words, they have flipped the script by putting the onus on managers to hear every new idea.

The policy doesn’t say that every idea gets the green light to be fully implemented or invested in. Rather, it’s about giving the idea enough oxygen to see if it has the potential to catch fire.

It’s like one of the fundamental rules of improv comedy where every player embraces the line “Yes, and … ” Think about it: When anyone says no, the scene ends. But by saying “Yes, and … ” they can find themselves heading in unpredictable and often hilarious directions.

That’s the beauty of embracing saying yes–even when every instinct in your body might be screaming no. That’s how breakthroughs and thinking outside the box happen.

Innovation Pays

By building an organizational culture that defaults to saying yes, Amazon has grown into one of the most valuable companies on the planet.

A prime example of how embracing this principle has paid off is Amazon Web Services, or AWS, which provides on-demand cloud computing resources that support millions of websites on the internet. It’s not crazy to say that there might not be an internet without AWS.

Originally launched in 2006 to encourage developers to build apps on the Amazon e-tail ordering infrastructure, AWS has evolved into a massive business with a reported $80 billion in annual revenue, accounting for about 14 percent of Amazon’s total revenue. It’s also Amazon’s fastest-growing and most profitable business unit.

Can you imagine a scenario where someone pitched this idea to their boss by saying, “I know we are in the retail business, but our infrastructure is so good, maybe we could offer to let other people build their business on it as well.”

“That’s a crazy idea. Of course, we’re not going to do that” would be what you might expect to hear.

But that’s not what happened. All because Amazon’s culture was hardwired to say yes.

The Wisdom of the Workforce

No matter what policies you put in place in your business, you’re still dealing with human beings–flaws and all.

But you’re missing out on a big opportunity if you’re not tapping the wisdom of your workforce to come up with creative new ideas and solutions.

The lesson learned is that if you want an experimental, creative, and risk-taking culture inside your company, you must change the default to yes.