In his recent Amazon shareholder letter, Jeff Bezos shared it's likely that most of us have low to nonexistent standards, and we just don't know any better. "You can consider yourself a person of high standards in general and still have debilitating blind spots," he wrote. "There can be whole arenas of endeavor where you may not even know that your standards are low or non-existent, and certainly not world class. It's critical to be open to that likelihood."

Taking the business from good to great, Bezos style

Bezos some serious experience in how to overcome blind spots. He believes standards are not something a person has, but something a domain of expertise has--and a person can learn them. That's an incredibly hopeful message.

He believes there are two things to focus on if you want your business to be great at something:

1)     Learning to recognize what "good is in that domain."

To learn how to recognize what's good in a specific area, you don't rely on general advice. Instead, you dive into the numbers and get expert help. Bezos says he's had many tutors, and many of them colleagues in areas he was weak in, like operational excellence.

2)     Have realistic expectations about how long it will take to get good.

Once you know what high standards truly are in a specific niche, you need patience.  The mistake most teams make, he shared, is thinking that it will take less time than it actually does to learn how to perform near the standard. 

Patience and persistence should be built into team plans--but often aren't.

In teams, Bezos believes just recognizing how long it takes to develop the muscle of achieving high standards is already an accomplishment. "You can improve results through the simple act of teaching scope," he said. In his view, understanding high standards and how long they take to achieve trumps individual skills. You can see his approach in how he's developed Amazon over the last 20 years from an online bookseller into a global titan with divisions in cloud services, manufacturing, and hardware. You can also see it his methodical approach to developing Blue Origin. At Amazon, even memos are written by teams, downplaying the cult of the individual so popular at many firms, and highlighting the standards the team wants to achieve.

Bezos credits high standards as a driving force in Amazon's relentless culture.

Plus, "perhaps a little less obvious: people are drawn to high standards," he shared. "They help with recruiting and retention. More subtle: a culture of high standards is protective of all the 'invisible' but crucial work that goes on in every company. I'm talking about the work that no one sees. The work that gets done when no one is watching. In a high standards culture, doing that work well is its own reward - it's part of what it means to be a professional."

Published on: Apr 30, 2018