• After our meeting, I asked everyone I could about Zuckerberg’s unusual appeal for feedback. Is this normal? Has he ever asked you? Following several inquiries, I had my answer: the request was simply a glimpse into the way he runs Facebook. Zuckerberg has built feedback into Facebook’s very fiber. Major meetings end with requests for it. Posters around Facebook’s offices say FEEDBACK IS A GIFT. And nobody in the company is above it, not even Zuckerberg himself

  • “Day One” is everywhere at Amazon. It’s the name of a key building, it’s the title of the company’s blog, and it’s a recurring theme in Bezos’s annual letter to shareholders. And though it’s tempting to read it as an order to work ceaselessly, particularly at the notoriously hard-charging Amazon, its meaning runs deeper

  • “Day One” at Amazon is code for inventing like a startup, with little regard for legacy. It’s an acknowledgment that competitors today can create new products at record speeds—thanks to advances in artificial intelligence and cloud computing especially—so you might as well build for the future, even at the present’s expense. It’s a departure from how corporate giants like GM and Exxon once ruled our economy: by developing core advantages, hunkering down, and defending them at all costs. Getting fat on existing businesses is no longer an option. In the 1920s, the average life expectancy of a Fortune 500 company was sixty-seven years. By 2015, it was fifteen. What does Day Two look like? It looks a lot like death

  • From its origins as an online bookseller, Amazon has lived its Day One mantra, inventing new businesses with abandon, with a near-complete disregard for how they might challenge its existing revenue streams. The company remains a bookseller, but it’s also a clearinghouse for almost every imaginable product, a thriving third-party marketplace, a world-class fulfillment operation, an Academy Award–winning movie studio, a grocer, a cloud services provider, a voice-computing operating system, a hardware manufacturer, and a robotics company. After each successful invention, Amazon returns to Day One and figures out what’s next

  • If an invention isn’t good enough for Amazon’s customers, it gets sent back to the drawing board. “The magic of the Go store comes from the fact that once you’re in, you can just walk out,” one person who worked on Go told me. “[The vending machine idea] didn’t eliminate the problem of checkout; it simply kicked the problem down the line.” And so it was rejected

  • Bezos offered an alternative: written memos. Instead of slideshows, he wanted Amazonians to write up ideas for new products and services in documents composed of paragraphs and complete sentences—no bullet points allowed. These memos would be comprehensive, making it easy to spot gaps in thinking, and they’d help Amazonians’ imaginations run wild as they composed them. “The narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what, and how things are related,” Bezos wrote

  • It’s one thing to have values, and the leadership principles are a clear articulation of Amazon’s, but without a system through which employees can put those values into practice, they’re often worth little. The moment Bezos hit Send on that email, he laid the foundation for Amazon’s system of invention, one that puts the written memo at the center. Today, all new projects inside Amazon kick off with memos. Set in the future, these memos describe exactly what a potential product will look like before anyone starts working on it. Amazonians call this “working backwards.” They dream up the invention first and then work backward from there. Limited to six pages, the memos are typically single-spaced, typed in eleven-point Calibri font, a half inch at the margins, and picture-free, and detail everything you could want to know about a proposed new product and service. I got a chance to look at one of these “six-pagers” when I was in Seattle, given access by an ex-Amazonian who asked to remain anonymous because they were supposed to have deleted it. The memo was exhaustive, containing an overview of the proposed new service, what rolling it out would mean for customers, what it would mean for Amazon’s vendors, a financial plan, an international plan, pricing, a work schedule, revenue projections, and metrics for success

  • Writing these memos is like writing science fiction, one ex-Amazonian told me. “It’s a story, set in the future, of what you believe the future is going to be,” he said. “It’s a story for something that doesn’t exist.” There’s actual fiction involved too: The six-pagers often contain fake press releases announcing the would-be product to the world, complete with fake quotes from executives hailing its arrival

  • When an Amazonian’s six-pager is ready to be reviewed, they ask for a meeting with the senior leaders who can help them turn their science fiction into reality, and then things get a little weird. With no PowerPoint to talk through, meetings inside Amazon kick off with silence. For fifteen minutes to an hour, everyone in the room quietly reads through the memo, takes notes, and prepares to ask questions. It’s agony for the memo writer, who has to sit there and watch Amazon’s top leaders, sometimes Bezos himself, comb through their ideas without making a peep. “I don’t get thirty minutes with Jeff every week or every month,” Sandi Lin, a former Amazon senior manager, told me. “I get one shot to present my ideas.”

  • “You put months of work into it,” Neil Ackerman, an ex–Amazon general manager who’s written multiple six-pagers (and has eight patents to show for it), explained. “For the first hour you sit down, you give everyone the pieces of paper, stapled, with a highlighter and a pencil—you don’t mail it out beforehand because no one pre-reads; that’s bullshit—then they basically are quiet for a whole hour and everyone reads,” he said

  • After the reading period, the most senior person in the room opens the floor up for questions, then the people sitting around the table show no mercy. “Now they sit there for another hour,” Ackerman said. “Then they get question and answer, question and answer. They get constantly barraged with questions—if it gets approved, they have a project.”

  • When a six-pager is approved, Amazon gives the person who wrote it a budget to start recruiting and build the invention they’ve dreamed up. Putting the person who wrote the six-pager in charge of bringing the idea to life is critical to Amazon’s ability to invent, Micah Baldwin, an ex-Amazonian who’s been through the process, told me

  • “There are two sides to invention,” he said. “There’s thinking and doing. And most doers don’t think. And most thinkers don’t do. And the great thing about a narrative is it forces you to do both. I have to think through the idea beginning to end—who cares, who wants it, who’s the customer, the whole deal—and I need to be able to put it in a narrative format that if I give it to you clean, you’ve never seen this ever, you can have an opinion about it, and be supportive of it or not. And then it’s my responsibility to execute it once it’s done. I’m not just writing it as a think piece. I’m forced to think, and I’m forced to do. Those two things in combination drive innovation.”

  • The six-pager democratizes invention within Amazon. Anyone inside the company can write one, and if they build enough traction, senior leadership will review it. “I read six-pagers that come from other parts of the company that don’t report to me,” Wilke told me. “I read six-pagers that are from people who are multiple levels down in the traditional organizational hierarchy. They can come from anywhere.”

  • The deep detail in these memos makes it easy for Bezos and his lieutenants to understand a project, approve it, reject it, or send it back to the team for further development. In this system, Amazon’s employees drive its success; they’re constantly improving, tweaking, and inventing through six-pagers, with Bezos acting as facilitator

  • The robots are the most visual example of Bezos’s obsession with automating whatever he can to free his employees to work on more creative tasks. “I don’t think I can remember a time where he wasn’t interested in using computing to help us achieve our mission,” Wilke said. “From the earliest days, he would look at a process, and if there was repetitive work being done by people who can be freed up to be more inventive, he would say, ‘How do we automate that process? How do we automate that routine so that our people can be as creative as possible?’”

  • Amazon’s inventory forecasting system was once missing predictions on some basic fashion products. Herbrich was incredulous; white socks should not be something that’s hard to forecast. So he ordered a review of the inputs going into the prediction tool, including color, and found that Amazon had fifty-eight thousand different color categories in total. Spelling mistakes and nonstandard spellings had thrown the system off, and when they standardized color, things went back to normal. By overriding bad predictions—that is, putting their hands on the wheel—Amazon’s employees would paper over problems with the inputs that drive the algorithms. Fix the inputs (in this case, normalize color categories) and you fix the system

  • By overriding bad predictions—that is, putting their hands on the wheel—Amazon’s employees would paper over problems with the inputs that drive the algorithms. Fix the inputs (in this case, normalize color categories) and you fix the system

  • Bezos’s urgency has fueled Amazon’s rise. It’s also, at times, put incredible pressure on his employees, who feel the need to keep up. Another Bezos leadership principle, Insist on the Highest Standards, spells out the company’s expectations pretty clearly: “Leaders have relentlessly high standards—many people may think these standards are unreasonably high.” One ex-Amazonian I spoke with told his wife and kids, “Daddy’s going to war,” when he accepted the job at Amazon. He ended up working straight through Thanksgiving dinners in service of the company’s goals. Sandi Lin, the former Amazon senior manager, repeated a saying from her time at the company that captures the mentality well: “At Amazon, if you turn water into wine, the first question is, ‘Well, why wasn’t that champagne?’”

  • “Amazon is obsessed with inputs and outputs. And the output is: the New York Times writes an article. That’s not a great output. The inputs are what got you there,” one ex-employee told me. The inputs, he explained, were all the little things the survey was testing for. “You’re working backwards from the output that you want, and you’re inventing a new tool and a new process to do that.”

  • Amazon then made some changes. It simplified its review process, which previously required lengthy self-evaluations from employees, structured around the leadership principles and spanning more than a dozen pages at times. Now its employees simply list their “superpowers.” Amazon also simplified its promotion process, which previously required managers to fight for their reports in front of skeptical colleagues, who ultimately decided the matter. If a manager didn’t want to fight for you, or recently spent their political capital fighting for a different employee, you could lose out on a promotion even if you were overperforming. Amazon has since simplified the process by allowing managers to submit someone for promotion via a software tool. Amazon also deep-sixed its Be Vocally Self-Critical leadership principle, moving elements of it to Earn Trust and adding a new principle, Learn and Be Curious (its Vocally Self-Critical a cappella group survives). Today, average tenure at Amazon is up from before the New York Times article, one current senior Amazonian told me

  • Facebook’s method for sharing feedback is adapted from the training company VitalSmarts. It has three main components: (1) State a fact; (2) share your story; (3) make an ask. The fact is the objective description of what happened. For example: When we last spoke, you said you’d have an answer to my question within a few days, and it’s now been two weeks. The story is the explanation that’s developed in your mind for why the thing you didn’t like happened. For instance: I know there’s a good chance you’ve been overloaded with work, but I’ve told myself you might disagree with the direction of my project, and therefore you haven’t answered. The ask is a question meant to get to a resolution: Can you help me understand?

  • McDevitt trains Facebook employees on how to deliver feedback, but these classes make them amenable to accepting it too. When you take the training, you see feedback at Facebook isn’t intended to break people down, but to expose them to new viewpoints. This can mean discussing a problem, or simply listening when someone says, “Hey, I have an idea and here’s why we should try it.” Ego and fear make these conversations difficult in most organizations. But within Facebook, the class, along with a broader commitment to feedback, has made them almost normal

  • For Zuckerberg, this feedback culture functions similar to Bezos’s six-page memos. By instilling a belief in his employees that all colleagues are worth listening to, Zuckerberg ensures ideas for new products rise up in Facebook, no matter their origin, and often come straight to him

  • Zuckerberg listens and learns, but he’s also decisive. His feedback culture ensures people and ideas are not constrained by hierarchy. But Zuckerberg is not running an organization without hierarchy. When he makes a call, Facebook goes all in. This makes the channels through which ideas bubble up to Zuckerberg central to the way Facebook functions. And there are four main ways ideas get to him: his Friday Q&As, Facebook’s internal groups, his inner circle, and his product reviews

  • Zuckerberg’s Friday Q&As date back to the days when the company occupied a single room, back in 2005, where they were simply called Friday Hangs. “We’d get Chinese food, hang out, relax,” Naomi Gleit, one of Facebook’s longest-tenured employees and its VP of product management, told me. The company now live-streams these Q&As, holds them in a large cafeteria, and orchestrates them with a moderator

  • Zuckerberg holds the Q&As to get a pulse of the company. He wants to know “what people are thinking about, what’s on their minds, what kinds of questions they’re asking, what the tone is,” Facebook HR head Lori Goler told me. This opens the door for anyone to bring up ideas for what the company should invent next. “They might ask about a product strategy and, in the course of asking, say, ‘Here’s my feedback on this product—what are you thinking in terms of strategy?’” Facebook’s employees are also constantly chattering in hundreds of internal Facebook groups, where they discuss products, ask questions of other teams, and rate their executives’ performance. These groups help ideas bubble up to Zuckerberg and his lieutenants, who spark and participate in the discussions themselves. Seeing the commercial value of this internal social network, Facebook has turned it into a product called Workplace, which now counts Walmart, Domino’s, and Spotify among its customers

  • Zuckerberg’s inner circle plays a significant role in channeling ideas to him as well, and he’s tried to fill it with people who speak uncomfortable truths (though not always successfully, as we’ll see shortly). Facebook’s leadership team holds Give and Take, a book by Wharton professor Adam Grant, in high regard. The book places people into four categories: agreeable givers, disagreeable givers, agreeable takers, and disagreeable takers. The categories are straightforward. Agreeable people are liked; disagreeable people are not. Givers give to the company. Takers take from the company. Agreeable givers don’t fill out Facebook’s top ranks, Gleit told me. “One thing Mark’s talked about, and that we’ve talked about as a leadership team, is that some of the most valuable people in your organization are disagreeable givers,” she said. “We really try to protect those people. I’ve seen Mark surround himself with disagreeable givers. They’re not going to tell you just what you want to hear. They’re going to tell you what they really think.”

  • This explains why Zuckerberg has kept Peter Thiel, the controversial venture capitalist, on his board. “A lot of people would not want Peter on their board because he is such a contrarian, and Mark did,” said Don Graham, who sat on the board with Thiel for years. “Peter became a director because he was a very early investor. But Mark wanted him to stay because Peter was such a loud voice putting forward ideas that Mark disagreed with.”

  • With Sandberg looking after Facebook’s business, Zuckerberg has focused (perhaps a little too much) on creating new products and services, spending large parts of his afternoons in meetings with his product managers, reviewing their work, and making calls on what they should pursue. These product managers’ feedback plays a significant role in determining the company’s direction. “Zuck, internally at least, has a well-earned reputation of being influenceable,” Mike Hoefflinger, a former Facebook director and author of Becoming Facebook, told me. From a business standpoint, Facebook’s feedback culture would prove vital as a major computing shift threatened to upend the young social network

  • Building native apps meant a significant change in the way Facebook operated. The company had to rethink the pace at which it released new features, moving from multiple times a day to every two months (that window eventually shortened, and is now almost back to normal). It had to reimagine the way it hired, looking for native-app developers after previously screening them out of its recruiting process. And it had to train its existing pool of engineers to build for native operating systems. In August 2012, Facebook released a native iOS app that was faster and less buggy than the web-based app. A similarly improved Android app debuted four months later. The rebuilt apps put Facebook on a much better footing, but Ondrejka wasn’t done. Amid this development process, Ondrejka came back to Zuckerberg with some more feedback. He drew a curve showing how quickly Facebook’s users were adopting mobile, and where the company’s mobile usage was heading—up and to the right. Further change was necessary

  • “I looked at the growth curve and extrapolated it into the future with a mild acceleration. And it was one of those curves you look at and go, ‘Well, there’s no way we’re going to hit that.’ But if we’re even close to that curve, mobile is going to be more than half of everything pretty quickly,” Ondrejka said. “We were never below the prediction. The mobile transition happened even faster than the crazy graph that I drew.” Looking at this graph, Ondrejka advised Zuckerberg to dissolve Facebook’s dedicated mobile team and make the entire company develop for mobile instead. Zuckerberg came around quickly, and told his product managers they’d only be able to bring him demos on mobile devices from then on. Show up with a desktop mock-up alone and they’d be kicked out of his office. It was a turning point for Facebook. The company’s mobile experience improved dramatically, and today more than 90 percent of Facebook’s advertising revenue comes from mobile. The myth about Facebook’s mobile transformation is that Zuckerberg had an epiphany and brilliantly repositioned his company for the age of the smartphone. This isn’t quite right. The real story is Zuckerberg set up a feedback culture. And when people bought in, they brought him ideas—tough ideas that required rethinking how the company operated—and those ideas ultimately saved Facebook from disaster

  • Zuckerberg said he followed tastemakers on Instagram, and confirmed he’s a Snapchat user too. “I try to use all the stuff,” he told me. “If you want to learn, there are so many lessons out there where people will tell you about things you’re not doing as well as you could. People tell you so much if you just care about understanding what they’re looking for.” This sort of experimentation has led Zuckerberg to some unexpected places. “When we were originally thinking about formally building a dating service for Facebook, I signed up for all the dating services,” he told me. “I was showing [my wife] Priscilla one of the apps. It was an app where you got matched with one person a day. I was like, ‘Here’s this app.’ And she said, ‘Hey, I’m having dinner with her tomorrow night!’” He matched with his wife’s friend. No word on how that dinner went

  • The company also comes together monthly for question-and-answer sessions with its leadership called “TGIF.” These sessions are held at the Google’s Mountain View campus, inside a large cafeteria called Charlie’s, and can feature an update from Pichai, a presentation from another executive or team, and then some questions. TGIF is technology enabled too. Googlers from around the world can tune in for a broadcast of these sessions via the company’s intranet and ask questions via Dory, a Q&A software tool named after Dory from Finding Nemo (a fish that suffers from memory loss and asks lots of questions). Inside Dory, Googlers vote on questions they want answered during the Q&As, and can do so without seeing the other votes, so the crowd won’t influence them. Management typically answers the top ten questions. When I visited Google’s campus in February 2019, I saw vote counts on Dory ranging into the thousands

  • Google has its own internal social media tool called Memegen, a website where Googlers post memes reacting to storylines within the company. When I visited Google, I saw memes praising Pichai for his testimony before Congress, joking about the company’s promotion criteria, engaging in bathroom humor, mourning the loss of a colleague, and apologizing for an email that accidentally went out to the entire company. (When Marissa Mayer left Google to become CEO of the struggling Yahoo!, the top Memegen post was a picture of her accompanied by the text: “Accomplished tech leader, Finally leading a non-profit.”) “That’s where I went to see employee sentiment,” Cong told me. “By seeing what they’re creating, you get an idea of how things are trending.”

  • Google’s communication tools are critical to its success: They cut down the execution work required to get up to speed on a new project, and make room for new ideas. They send ideas rocketing around the company, sparking invention and improvement. They enable collaboration and signal it’s expected, removing red tape and driving home the importance of working together with fellow members of the hive mind

  • When Pichai took over Google Toolbar, the product had gained traction among some early adopters who appreciated the easy access to search. (Until then, the best way to search on Internet Explorer was to click a “Search” button that opened up a search web page.) It also blocked pop-up windows, winning it more supporters. But years into the project’s life, Toolbar didn’t have nearly enough downloads to fortify Google against Microsoft. So Pichai began developing partnerships to force the issue. “The hardest part about getting someone to try a new piece of Windows software is getting them to download it,” Linus Upson, a Google VP who shared an office with Pichai at the time, told me. “So he built relationships with Adobe, which had the most-downloaded Windows products on the planet in Flash and Acrobat Reader. When you got Flash, or you got Reader, there was a checkbox that said, ‘Would you like Google Toolbar?’ And he did this with a number of popular downloads at the time. He set up a distribution channel.”

  • In the meetings with Adobe and others, Pichai needed to figure out how to bring people with disparate interests together, often in tense negotiations, where lots of money changed hands. It helped that Google had lots of money at its disposal, a product of its cash-printing ad business. Tempting as it might’ve been to show up, flash the money, and tell Google’s partners what to do, Pichai listened instead, validating their opinions, and worked toward solutions

  • Pichai’s demeanor during the Toolbar episode previewed the way he’d encourage invention as he worked his way up Google’s ranks and into the CEO role. Bezos channels ideas up to decision makers via six-pagers. Zuckerberg creates a direct path for ideas to get to him via his feedback culture, making sure they flow up and down. Pichai makes sure ideas flow side to side, breaking down barriers between groups, setting objectives but minimizing his presence, and sparking collaboration

  • “Sundar’s not the kind of person that dominates the conversation. He does a very good job of making space for other people to have their thoughts heard,” Upson said. “He’s very thoughtful, very deliberate; he’s very good at listening to other people.”

  • Building off his successful run with Toolbar, Pichai took an unconventional approach at the helm of Chrome. To foster collaboration, he created a decentralized organization that operated with the spirit of an open-source project. Pichai’s team invented Chrome in a fashion similar to McGowan’s Google Slides presentation, a collaborative endeavor with loose central decision making. Pichai gave the groups working on Chrome a directive to make the browser fast, simple, and secure, and then handed them ample leeway to build things into the product

  • “Sundar wasn’t the gatekeeper. It wasn’t that you had to go to Sundar,” Chew, who worked on Chrome versions 1 through 44, told me. “For the vast majority of things that we did in Chrome, we didn’t talk with Sundar. We didn’t go and get it approved by Sundar. He and Linus [Upson] created a culture where people were empowered deep in the organization.”

  • The freewheeling culture created by Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin came to its natural end. He pushed his power down to the rank and file, giving them a chance to make their own decisions on how they should build. Instead of inserting himself as a bottleneck, he got out of the way and let his team work. The people working with Pichai rewarded him with quite a few good ideas. Chrome ran each tab as if it were a separate program, so if one tab broke down, the entire browser wouldn’t crash, as was typical among Chrome’s competitors. Chrome also brought search and web navigation together into a single address bar, simplifying an experience traditionally kept in two separate fields. And the browser ran fast, as intended

  • To free people and ideas from Microsoft’s hierarchy, Nadella employed tactics straight out of the Facebook playbook. He built a culture of feedback, having his employees meet with their managers every quarter for feedback sessions called “Connects.” He started hosting Q&As with employees. And he went out and listened. “Over the first several months of my tenure, I devoted a lot of time to listening,” Nadella wrote. “Listening was the most important thing I accomplished each day because it would build the foundation of my leadership for years to come.”

  • This listening campaign was a departure from Ballmer’s style, but consistent with Nadella’s conduct. From his early days at the company, he’d take young employees out for meals, simply to hear their thoughts on where the technology world was going. “Satya would seek my opinion out,” one former Microsoft employee who worked with Nadella in the early 2000s told me. “It was unthinkable that some senior exec would ask some random twenty-three-year-old program manager, ‘Hey, how is this startup doing?’ No other exec would give me the time of day.”

  • Nadella’s style made the company’s leadership newly approachable, several current and former Microsoft employees told me. “In every meeting, every situation, he would be very open about what he knew and didn’t know,” Julie Larson-Green, the former chief experience officer, said. “That made it okay for other people to talk about how they felt.”

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