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November 2016

What it means to “Disagree and Commit” and how I do it.

DisagreeIf you have been following Amazon at all, you have probably heard what sounds like code language when we talk about how we get our work done. As I have mentioned before, our Leadership Principles work like a kind of short-hand for the types of qualities that make people effective here. And they aren’t just for leaders of organizations, they are for everyone at Amazon. We are all leaders.

A blog reader recently contacted me asking for some tips on his upcoming interview and we got into a discussion of the Leadership Principles because they are definitely something I encourage anyone interviewing with Amazon to understand and think about during their prep.

He pointed out that one particular principle: “Disagree and Commit” can feel like a challenge to people who have been taught not to question authority or not to cause confrontation. Disagreeing in a real life work scenario and talking about it in an interview are different things.  

It’s even a challenge to people like me who were told earlier in their career that they are “too direct” and have adjusted their communication style accordingly. Of course, everyone who works here and exercises this principle does it in their own way. I’ll share a little bit about how I do it.

But first, let me explain this particular LP.  Here is the actual verbiage.

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.

You may have heard that Jeff Bezos dislikes social cohesion. It’s a detriment to business success because it causes people to stifle ideas and objections for the sake of keeping the peace. I’m the kind of person who can have a concern or objection sidetrack my attention and I need to get it out; at least have it heard. So I prefer to run the risk of ruffling feathers a little bit to unburden myself of my concern and provide some insights that may increase the chance of success for the project. It feels like the right thing to do.

A nice side effect of this focus on respectful disagreement is that it keeps people engaged in meetings. I mean, anyone can share an opinion, even if there’s a VP presenting and a junior team member has a concern. So it is less likely that people will tune out based on a feeling that they don’t really have a voice in the discussion. For employees, that’s really empowering.

You might agree with the thinking behind this leadership principle and still feel uncomfortable because it seems confrontational. I get it; like I said, I am constantly filtering myself so I don’t come off as overly direct or critical.  And that can lead to appearing non-committal, disengaged or just not that tuned in, if I let that filter shut me down too much. So I have developed an approach to “disagree and commit” that works for me.

Step one: acknowledge what you just heard. This is helpful, because it keeps the other person from thinking that you are quick on the draw to attack their idea. It shows that you are thoughtful and sometimes it actually clears up misunderstandings about their point of view.

“So what I think I’m hearing you say is that you would like to shift our investment in project A to project B so that we will see results faster. Is that right?”

Step two: ask the other side to consider new data or a different viewpoint. It’s possible that the other person has already considered your perspective and this flushes that out. Also, asking it as a question feels less threatening to the other person.

“Have you documented and weighed the risks associated with each project and will you help us understand what that looks like? At first glance, project B looks to be a riskier project.”

Step three: ask for more time and offer to assist in researching alternatives.

“I noticed that you didn’t mention any risks related to supply chain delays, which could push the timeline out for the project significantly. I have some data that I think would be helpful to consider before making a final decision. Can I have a few days to pull that data together and then we can met again to discuss it?”

This step can involve multiple rounds of engagement and loads of data, with the goal of having the other person consider your point of view. From a practical standpoint, you now have to decide whether ongoing discussion is going to change minds. If you have presented your arguments, are sure that the other person understands, and it’s their decision to make, you have done your due diligence.

Step four: Let it go. Or at least acknowledge (to yourself) that the other person’s objectives may differ from yours, that maybe they have more info that they aren’t able to share and/or ultimately, that if they own the project, it’s their decision to make. If you can get to this place, the “commit” part becomes easier.

“There are some risks related to this approach that I am concerned about but I am confident that you have heard and considered them. Please let me know if you need my help executing on this plan.”

One of the harder parts of this is support and commitment to the chosen path, after the fact, especially when others have concerns about the approach decided upon. Citing some of the data that was considered usually helps others see that a careful approach was taken. For example “I spoke with Steve about the potential supply chain data and he felt confident that we would be able to deliver.” You see, commit doesn’t just mean giving up the argument. It means actually getting on board and supporting the work.

The fact that Amazon is comfortable with experimentation and failure helps a lot too.  You can try something, gather data to analyze its success, and make additional strategy and investment decisions from there. So decisions here have less likelihood of being “career limiting” as many other places. In the case of our example, Steve might come around to the point of view that the supply chain issues were significant enough to impact customers and therefore, sink the project. Or he might collect data along the way to help him find a new way to solve those supply chain issues.

The steps actually work if you are on the other side of the disagree and commit scenario as well: restating what you think you heard, asking the person to consider additional data or a viewpoint.  It’s just a respectful way to disagree in pursuit of the best outcome. It focuses the conversation on a mutual understanding based on data, not a turf war or judgement about how well a plan has been constructed.

Feel free to share if you have different ways of approaching this kind of workplace situation. My approach obviously works for my own personality style, but I am sure there are many more ways to handle a disagree and commit situation.

Partnering with VPs, Alex Trebek and the Definition of "Crunk"

Stephanie Hubley is a bit of a celebrity at Amazon this week - she unseated a Jeopardy returning champion and Jeff Bezos knows her name. The Executive Assistant in Kindle appeared on Jeopardy this past Wednesday and will be returning to defend her spot in an upcoming game.

Jeff Bezos gave her a shout out at our recent employee all-hands as well. 

You can read about Stephanie's experience, in her own words here. And see how employees rallied to watch the show and cheer her on. You'll also learn more about "crunk" (which I would have struggled to define even without the pressure of the show) and get some insight into the EA role at Amazon - Stephanie cleared the calendar of the VPs she works with so they could join her to watch the show.

By the way, you don't have to be a master or trivia to be an EA at Amazon. If you are interested in exploring the different types of administrative roles across the company, you can find them here. There's also a page dedicated to EAs in Amazon's Consumer Division here and a video below.