Business has been booming for Amazon, and the future looks bright.

One of the surprise contributors to this success is the Amazon Echo, a smart speaker that's capable of answering your questions, playing back music and podcasts, and controlling smart devices in your home.

Disclosure: I don't own an Echo, and I made fun of its debut (because I found the initial ads pretty creepy). But the device has gotten rave reviews from major outlets like CNET, Recode, and The New York Times, to name just a few. And on Amazon.com, it's received more than 44,000 reviews to date, with an average rating of 4.5 stars (out of five).

So how exactly did the Echo come to be?

It seems that the Amazon team started with a form of strategic thinking known as retrograde analysis.

Or, as it's more commonly known, working backwards.

Working Backward

Mike George, vice president of Amazon Echo, said the idea for the device began with a pretend press release (as reported by Yahoo).

George explains:

We have a thing called "working backwards." The first thing we do is we write a press release, ignoring every technical thing we can't do for now. It's our aspirations. We also write FAQs where we identify every question we would receive as if we issued the press release. We answer the questions in aspirational ways too, ignoring, for the moment, the technical hurdles. In some cases we actually build things.

George goes on to describe how everyone in the room then debates the product, speaking up against any potential pitfalls. Doing so is significant, because agreeing to work on the team is the same as approving the idea. Team members are then expected to commit wholly to the success of the project.

So how can you learn to work backwards? Here are two tips:

1. Start with the end.

Often, planning a project from step one results in overspending on initial stages and rushing (or underfunding) the all-important work that comes later.

Instead, try planning your project by working backwards from the final steps. Often this enables you to allocate time and resources in a more balanced manner.

2. Find the consumer's perspective.

More isn't always better. Too many choices can be paralyzing--for both employee and consumer.

Start by thinking of the consumer, and what he or she truly wants--as opposed to what it's possible to provide. Then narrow things down and focus on the best options.

Putting It Into Practice

Amazon's not the only company working backwards. Retrograde analysis is used in fields such as law, science, medicine, and even the stock market. (Here's a feature detailing how a chess grandmaster uses the technique.)

It's all about learning to see the future.

And that's one thing Amazon's always done well.

Published on: Oct 20, 2016
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