Two uncommon insights from Jeff Bezos’ Letter to AWS Shareholders we can all learn from

Firstly, Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you, Happy 20th Birthday Dear Amazon, Happy Birthday to you.

In this year’s 8K filing there was the usual Dear Shareholders letter from Big Jeff. Lots of interesting stuff in here but two points really jabbed me between the eyes like a cold, bony finger trying to drill into my skull. Why? Because these two points are what I’ve been whingeing and moaning and carping and groaning about for the past few years!

  1. Don’t let process own you — think ITIL gone…stale?
  2. Don’t let survey data own you — stories can trump data.

Was Jeff dissing the IT Service Management crowd?

I’m only (half) joking about this, but here are Jeff’s words:

As companies get larger and more complex, there’s a tendency to manage to proxies. This comes in many shapes and sizes, and it’s dangerous, subtle, and very Day 2.
A common example is process as proxy. Good process serves you so you can serve customers. But if you’re not watchful, the process can become the thing. This can happen very easily in large organizations. The process becomes the proxy for the result you want. You stop looking at outcomes and just make sure you’re doing the process right. Gulp. It’s not that rare to hear a junior leader defend a bad outcome with something like, “Well, we followed the process.” A more experienced leader will use it as an opportunity to investigate and improve the process. The process is not the thing. It’s always worth asking, do we own the process or does the process own us? In a Day 2 company, you might find it’s the second.

I saw this ten years ago across large enterprises that were “doing ITIL” as committees resisted virtualization because they couldn’t work out if a vMotion was a change or an incident. If it didn’t fit in the bucket, then they weren’t doing it (seriously!).

Our IT Service Management friends, a broad church of assorted souls, do like their process. But like smarter people than me have commented,

“Process can be like concrete being poured over your organization, baking it into a brittle body with a terrified rictus that is frightened of change.”

Be like Jeff! Don’t let process become the thing and own you!

With data, you can still be a fool with “just” an opinion

I’m the one with the rictus every time I hear the phrase, “Without data you’re just another person with an opinion.” Like my opinion isn’t worth a damn? And who said your data don’t stink?

Let me shout this: SURVEY DATA STINKS! We’ve all done it, quoting a number like “80% of IT people think security is the biggest cloud challenge.” Then the pundits (some like me, some not like me) quote it, it becomes a thing, and we all think the cloud is insecure because everyone else does, according to The Survey.

But let’s say the survey used a “Rolodex research” method and called ten friends to ask their opinion. Eight out of ten shrieked about security. But who were they? Do they represent “IT People”? Is ten enough? What do they mean “security”? And what do they mean about “biggest cloud challenge”?

Back to Big Jeff:

“I’m not against beta testing or surveys. But you, the product or service owner, must understand the customer, have a vision, and love the offering. Then, beta testing and research can help you find your blind spots. A remarkable customer experience starts with heart, intuition, curiosity, play, guts, taste. You won’t find any of it in a survey.”

Do you know what the biggest joke about surveys is? They are surveys of peoples’ opinions. So if you think my opinion is worthless, without data, surely a survey is just data about worthless opinions?

Isn’t that logical? What am I missing?

And anyway, since when is anyone’s opinion worthless without data? Anecdotes, as Space Jeff calls them, or customer stories as I call them, are golden.

Anecdotes and customer stories give insights that few surveys can capture. Whether formal interviews or drawing pictures on beer mats in a bar, time spent with customers gives insights.

These insights aren’t necessarily the customer saying directly, “Build me this product”… it’s often understanding, through story telling, what the customer’s selfish needs are. If you understand those, and you speak with enough customers, you will have more insight than any survey can give. But it’s harder than a survey, because you have to speak to real people for a start.

And that’s where surveys and processes meet: they are, as Jeff says, proxies. They are a way of distancing one’s self from real people and the real issues. But real people is where the real issues are, so, be like Jeff, and don’t let process or surveys own you.

Disclaimer: No ITIL or ITSM or Survey Monkeys were harmed in the making of this article.