Amazon.com swears by “Working Backwards” as a tenet. And it is an excellent tenet that has worked well for the company. The work culture is such that even all of its employees adhere to it as a principle.

Working at Amazon, I, too, got to learn the benefits of this principle. It is an excellent rule to follow for any consumer-facing product/company like Amazon. You keep “Customer Obsession” or customer stories as your north star and “work backward” from there; you let it guide you to indicate which direction to move. This works well for customer-oriented businesses like Amazon.

But there are situations where “Working Backwards” might not serve us well. Scientific Research, for example, “works forward” by first being guided by our intuitions and then later trusting the scientific method of knowledge discovery and the verification of results through empirical rigor. We do not often know the end destination we will reach, from where you can work backward. If you know what the results are going to be, then it is no longer research.

Steve Jobs, while releasing the iPhone, once told that sometimes customers do not know what they want, and we need to tell them what they want. That was how he revolutionized the smartphone market — no one knew what kind of product would be most convenient. Steve Jobs dreamt up the iPhone product and told them what they should be wanting. This is a typical case of “working forward” rather than “working backward.”

But working backward does work for Amazon very well, and I believe much of the company’s success can be attributed to this tenet. These two articles explain how Amazon does “working backwards” with science and engineering –

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Another aspect of Amazon’s work culture that really appealed to me was their habit of document/narrative writing. Their decision-making process and meetings do not have any PowerPoint presentations. Instead, employees are expected to write narrative documents which can go up to 6 pages, and the meeting attendees read and reflect on the document and then discuss the proposal. With such documents, it is much easier even for the non-attendees to catch up later on the proceedings of the meeting.