6 minute read

In a recent Lex Fridman podcast, Jeff Bezos shared essential leadership insights, emphasizing the need for speed and truth in business decision-making. He discussed strategies for companies to rapidly reach decisions and avoid excessive deliberation. Bezos also delved into practices that facilitate the pursuit of truth, crucial for effective and informed decision-making in the corporate world.

How to become fast at decision making

When discussing the concept of decision-making in businesses, Jeff Bezos’s insights provide a profound perspective, particularly on the common pitfall many companies face: failing to recognize “two-way doors.” This failure often leads to unnecessary delays and hinders agility in the corporate world.

illustration of a one way door

Most decisions in a business, according to Bezos, are “two-way doors.” These are decisions that are reversible and less critical. If a mistake is made, it’s relatively easy to backtrack and choose a different path. However, Bezos advocates that these two-way door decisions should primarily be made by single individuals or very small teams within the organization. This approach empowers teams to act swiftly and efficiently, avoiding the trap of over-deliberation.

Many companies treat these decisions as if they are “one-way doors” - significant, irreversible choices that require extensive deliberation. This cautious approach, while prudent for genuinely critical decisions, becomes a hindrance when applied indiscriminately. By applying the heavy, slow-moving process meant for one-way doors to all decisions, companies inadvertently stall their progress. They spend excessive time analyzing and deliberating choices that could be made quickly and adjusted if necessary. This not only slows down the decision-making process but also stifles innovation and responsiveness to changing market conditions.

Bezos’s philosophy at Amazon was to empower individuals and small teams to make two-way door decisions swiftly, reserving the meticulous, slower approach for the true one-way doors. This balance between caution and speed is crucial. It allows businesses to move quickly on most fronts while still being deliberate where it counts.

Getting to the truth

Tackling Groupthink in Meetings:

Groupthink is a common phenomenon in meetings, especially those involving individuals of varying seniority. Jeff Bezos sheds light on this issue, emphasizing that when a senior member expresses their opinion first, it can inadvertently influence the thoughts of others. This dynamic leads to a situation where diverse opinions may get suppressed or altered in favor of aligning with the leader’s view.

But why does this happen, even among the most competent and confident individuals? The answer lies in our inherent nature as social beings. As Bezos points out, humans are not primarily truth-seeking; we are social animals. Our survival and success have historically depended on our ability to cooperate and align with our social groups. This instinct is deeply ingrained and can subtly influence our behavior in group settings.

In a meeting, when a respected or senior figure voices their opinion, it triggers an almost instinctual response in others to align with that viewpoint. This isn’t necessarily about agreement or disagreement on a rational level; it’s about the social dynamics of respect, authority, and the desire for harmony within the group. Even highly experienced and intelligent individuals are not immune to this social influence.

To counteract this, Bezos practices speaking last in meetings. Ideally, participants state their opinions from most junior to the most senior role, ensuring that all voices are heard in an unfiltered manner. This approach not only encourages honest expression but also highlights the importance of every team member’s perspective.

The Peril of Proxies:

In business, the use of proxies – indirect measures to gauge performance or success – is common. Yet, as Jeff Bezos highlights, the management of these proxies can often lead to skewed decisions and strategies. This usually happens when organizations lose touch with the original purpose behind these proxies.

One major issue is organizational inertia. Over time, the reasons behind the selection of certain metrics as proxies can get lost in the shuffle of daily operations. Teams might continue tracking these metrics out of habit, not because they still provide relevant or useful insights. What made sense as a proxy five years ago might not be relevant today. Markets evolve, consumer behaviors shift, and what once was a reliable indicator of success or performance might now be outdated or misleading. This evolution can render once-crucial proxies ineffective, yet companies may continue to rely on them without recognizing their diminished relevance.

There’s often a lack of critical reassessment of proxies. In many organizations, questioning the validity and effectiveness of established metrics is not a regular practice. This lack of scrutiny can lead to a situation where businesses optimize for metrics that no longer align with their current goals or market realities.

To avoid the pitfalls of mismanaged proxies, Bezos suggests fostering a culture that continuously questions and reassesses these metrics. It’s vital for organizations to regularly review their proxies to ensure they still represent their true objectives and adapt to the dynamic nature of the business environment. This ensures that decision-making and strategy remain focused on actual goals, not just the numbers that are meant to represent them.

Revolutionizing Meetings with the 6-Page Memo:

Jeff Bezos’ introduction of the 6-page memo to meetings at Amazon and Blue Origin marks a significant departure from traditional corporate meeting practices. This method ensures that every participant is not just physically present but also intellectually engaged with the matter at hand.

At the core of this approach is the ‘study hall’ session, where the meeting commences with everyone silently reading a narratively structured memo for about 30 minutes. This practice counters a common problem in many companies where participants come to meetings either unprepared or having only skimmed through the pre-read materials. In such scenarios, discussions can lack depth and understanding, leading to surface-level conversations and often, misguided decisions.

Illustration of a meeting, where everyone is reading a memo

Another critical issue in traditional meetings is the reliance on PowerPoint presentations, which Bezos views as a persuasion tool rather than a means for truth-seeking. Presentations with slides filled with bullet points can be misleading, allowing for vague and incomplete information to be conveyed. This method often leads to discussions that are more about aligning with the presenter’s perspective rather than delving into the actual substance of the issue.

In contrast, the 6-page memo demands comprehensive thinking and clarity from the author. This rigorous process of writing, rewriting, and editing ensures that the author presents their best thinking, leaving little room for ambiguity or half-baked ideas. For the participants, this means they are not spending time trying to extract the presenter’s thoughts during the meeting but are instead coming in with a full understanding of the subject.

Post the reading session, the meeting transforms into a dynamic discussion space, often described by Bezos as ‘messy.’ Here, the real problem-solving occurs, with participants exploring solutions based on a shared understanding developed through the memo. This method is especially effective in preventing higher-ranking individuals from unduly influencing the discussion, as everyone’s input is based on the same detailed document.

This approach also addresses the common problem of interruptions in meetings. Often in traditional settings, senior executives interject with questions, some of which would be addressed later in the presentation. The memo approach eliminates this by providing all the necessary information upfront, allowing for a more structured and focused discussion.