How Amazon Innovates

Good writing is good thinking, even for the world’s most powerful tech company

Greg Satell


Photo: Christian Wiediger/Unsplash

In 2014, Stephenie Landry was finishing up her one-year stint as technical adviser to Jeff Wilke, who oversees Amazon’s worldwide consumer business, which is a mentor program that allows high potential executives to shadow a senior leader and learn firsthand. Her next assignment would define her career.

At most companies, an up-and-comer like Landry might be given a division to run or work on a big acquisition deal. Amazon, however, is a different kind of place. Landry wrote a memo outlining plans for a new service she’d been thinking about, Prime Now, which today offers one-hour delivery to customers in over 50 cities across nine countries.

It’s no secret that Amazon is one of the world’s most innovative companies. Starting out as a niche service selling books online, it’s now not only a dominant retailer but a pioneer of new categories like cloud computing and smart speakers. The key to its success is not any one process, but how it integrates a customer obsession deep within its culture and practice.

Starting With the Customer and Working Back

At the heart of how Amazon innovates is its six-page memo, which is required at the start of every new initiative. What makes it effective isn’t so much the structure of the document itself, but how it is used to embed a fanatical focus on the customer from day one. It’s something that is impressed upon Amazon employees early in their careers.

The first step in developing Prime Now was to write a press release. Landry’s document was not only a description of the service, but how hypothetical customers would react to it. How did the service affect them? What surprised them about it? What concerns did they want addressed? The exercise forced her to internalize how Amazon’s customers would think and feel about Prime Now from the very start.

You often need to go slow to move fast.

Next, she wrote a series of FAQs anticipating concerns for both customers and for various stakeholders within the firm, like the CFO, operations people, and the leadership of the Prime program. Landry had to…



Greg Satell

Co-Founder: ChangeOS | Bestselling Author, Keynote Speaker, Wharton Lecturer, HBR Contributor, - Learn more at