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A Lesson In Effective Innovation From Amazon

I recently hosted a private event put on by Amazon Web Services for CDOs and CAOs. I interviewed Jeff Carter, a former Teradata executive and colleague who has been at Amazon for several years now in various senior leadership roles, first at and now at Amazon Web Services. It was a lively discussion and one of the topics, which I’ll discuss here, has stuck with me ever since. It is the “2 > 0 and 1 > 2” philosophy that Amazon follows when pursuing innovation. This concept has been mentioned publicly in various forums and I validated that it is safe for me to discuss. Let’s dig into it!

Defining 2 > 0

Innovation is hard in any environment. In a large corporation, innovation can often get caught in a tug of war between various stakeholders who want to get credit for the work. As a result, many organizations will specifically force teams to pause work when it appears that fully or partially redundant efforts might be underway by different teams. The logic makes sense on the surface – it seems to be a waste of money to do things twice, so let’s get everyone together, form a committee, decide a single path forward, assign a single team to pursue that path, and then continue the effort.

The problem with that approach is that, at best, the innovation is greatly delayed. At worst, nothing happens and instead of having two competing solutions that work, the company will have none. At Amazon, they empower teams to solve their problems. When two teams are both pursuing a similar goal, they are each encouraged to continue rather than being blocked. The situation is turned into a competition of sorts to see which team can get there first and have a better solution.

It is that approach that Amazon refers to as “2 > 0”. It means that having two solutions to a problem is better than having none. They let some of their best minds battle it out to see who achieves the better innovation.

Defining 1 > 2

If Amazon took the 2 > 0 concept too far, however, then there could be mayhem and massive redundancy. So, they layer in the other side of the philosophy which goes by “1 > 2”. The concept is simple. Once the competing teams each have a solution, the solutions are evaluated to determine which is the overall best and most scalable. That solution is then targeted for deployment. However, there is an important twist! As part of the deployment, the winning team must incorporate any additional functionality that the other team required above its own. Thus, when it comes time to deploy, there will be a single solution that meets everyone’s needs.

That is the core point behind “1 > 2”. It is better to get to two solutions instead of one to consider. At the same time, it is better to deploy and scale one solution than to deploy and scale multiple similar solutions. When crunch time arrives, Amazon forces the teams to reconcile their differences and move forward with a single, unified, agreed upon solution. They take the best of the innovative solutions while ensuring all needs are met.

The Ramifications

The brilliance of Amazon’s approach to me is that it encourages innovation, and even makes a competition out of it, during the prototyping and development stages. However, when it comes time to deploy a real solution, the innovations are combined to ensure that there isn’t a lot of redundancy present. By taking the best from each independent solution, Amazon ends up with a final product that is better than either of the individual solutions would have been. At the same time, they get that final solution faster than they would have if they made everyone stop and line up on a single path before starting any prototyping and development. Sure, it can cost more allowing some redundancy of effort, but the speed and quality impacts must be making the extra costs pay out or the philosophy would have been abandoned.

One of the challenges I’ve talked about with large organizations for many years is the balance between letting people freely experiment and explore in a development environment while still protecting the integrity and scalability of a production environment. Finding the right balance isn’t easy, to say the least. However, Amazon’s “2 > 0 and 1 > 2” philosophy is one of the best approaches I have come across. I would recommend that you consider incorporating it into your own organization’s culture and processes.

Originally published by the International Institute for Analytics