Thanks to Amazon's meteoric rise and lots of press coverage about the company's demanding work culture, most of us think of the company and its boss, Jeff Bezos, as ruthlessly efficient. And certainly, Amazon values hard word, strategic thinking, and squeezing the most out of resources.

But according to the latest of Bezos' annual letters to shareholders, efficiency is only part of the reason for Amazon's incredibly success. Nose to the grindstone productivity is essential, he advises fellow strivers, but so is taking time to wander.

Aimless wandering is an essential component of innovation.

Usually it's poets who argue for the soul-expanding power of aimless wandering ("I loaf and invite my soul," wrote Walt Whitman). But Bezos makes a more hard-nosed case for making space in your business for getting a little lost:

Sometimes (often actually) in business, you do know where you're going, and when you do, you can be efficient. Put in place a plan and execute. In contrast, wandering in business is not efficient ... but it's also not random. It's guided-- by hunch, gut, intuition, curiosity, and powered by a deep conviction that the prize for customers is big enough that it's worth being a little messy and tangential to find our way there. Wandering is an essential counter-balance to efficiency. You need to employ both. The outsized discoveries -- the "non-linear" ones -- are highly likely to require wandering.

The greatest ideas rarely come from heads down beavering. They come when you're in the shower or reading a book on a subject totally distant from your business. Truly innovative products are born out of hunches and 'Hey, wouldn't it be cool if...' rather than rigorous analysis on existing offerings.

A free-roving, curious mind, in other words, can be a better source of blockbuster ideas than crunching customer data. "It's critical to ask customers what they want, listen carefully to their answers, and figure out a plan to provide it thoughtfully and quickly," Bezos writes. "But it's also not enough. The biggest needle movers will be things that customers don't know to ask for." 

Innovations like Alexa come from doing what looks like a whole lot of nothing on the outside. They come from play and curiosity. If you build such an efficient culture that you totally crowd out those things, you'll win on small beans execution but miss out on the crazy game changers.

You can't be productive and creative at the same time.

Bezos isn't the only thinker to note the tradeoffs between creativity and productivity. "There is a fundamental tension between productivity and creativity," claims psychologist Art Markman. "Productive people move through the tasks they have to accomplish in a systematic way. They make steady and measurable progress toward their goals. They make effective and efficient use of their time. Creativity... doesn't. Creativity needs time and space to grow."

Other entrepreneurs make the same observation. Founder turned Amazon employee Tac Anderson already agreed with his future boss when he wrote on Medium about how routines conserve our mental energy for greater productivity but also tend to kill creativity.

"How are you supposed to come up with new 'creative' ideas when you see the same people, in the same buildings, after driving the same route to work, sitting at the same desk, or in the same generic conference rooms? Our brains don't work that way," he wrote.

Also on Medium developer Vitaly Friedman agrees: "Routine is deadly for creativity. It's deadly for innovation and challenging design problems, too, because it hinders spontaneous decisions, random experiments, and weird ideas." If you want inspiration, you need to stop being so efficient and allow yourself to goof off more.

All of which isn't to say that Jeff Bezos (or anyone else sensible) is advocating slacking off all day while you wait for inspiration to strike. Once good ideas come to you, damn hard work will be necessary to bring them to fruition. But if you crowd out play, exploration, relaxation, and intuition with your endless quest for productivity, you're unlikely to have any truly great ideas to pursue.

Published on: Apr 12, 2019
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