In this volatile and complex era, it’s easy to compare companies that are doing great with companies that are falling apart.
Last year, for example, Amazon announced its plans to hire 100,000 more workers in the US over the next 18 months. Most of those new hires would be outside corporate headquarters – in fulfillment centers, customer service centers, and new brick-and-mortar stores throughout the country. Around the same time, major retailers with powerful brands announced brutal layoffs. Macy’s closed 100 stores and let 10,000 employees go, Sears closed 150 stores, and The Limited closed ALL of its 250 stores and cut 4,000 jobs. Even more recently, Toys "R" Us announced that they are closing all 735 U.S. stores and laying off 31,000 workers after 70 years in business.
Why does a shift like this happen? It’s easy to point to the rise of new technology and a better business model. Macy’s and Toys “R” Us were the killer retail platforms of their day, drawing customers seeking convenience, low price, attractive brands, and variety. Now, Amazon’s got the platform that does all that cheaper, easier, and faster.
But technology, business model, and brand can’t explain Amazon’s success and the failure of its competitors. If the answer was that easy, other companies with deep pockets, large footprints, and strong brands could just emulate Amazon’s approach. Certainly, Borders, Barnes and Noble, The Limited, Best Buy, and Walmart, among others, have tried to reproduce Amazon’s online distribution strategy but none have come even close to matching Amazon at innovation, execution, speed, growth, and agility.
That’s because Amazon’s winning formula can’t be found in a business plan. Its secret weapon is a unique and extraordinarily feisty culture.
Strong vs Weak Cultures
Amazon is understood to have a forceful, even brutal corporate culture. A much-discussed article in the New York Times went into disturbing detail on the company’s inner workings, portraying it as incredibly high-pressure, unreasonably demanding, and ultra-competitive.
Human toll aside, the instinct is to think “strong” cultures are good and “weak” cultures are bad. Indeed, I can’t think of an iconic and successful company that doesn’t have a strong culture reputation.
Yet, I believe the truth about culture when it comes to Amazon and other incredibly successful companies is more nuanced. It’s not just cultural “strength” that sets them apart, but a dynamic, agile, and hyper-aware cultural attitude and mindset I call being “feisty.”
Yes it seems obvious that a strong and unified culture would be better however there’s an important caveat to that.
Companies with strong cultures run into problems at crisis points. When the road is straight and clear, a strong culture can be a distinct competitive advantage. Today, the road is rarely straight, however. During times of change or uncertainty, strong alignment creates rigidity, and a narrowness of focus that is detrimental. Rather than protect from the forces of change, that strong culture makes an organization more vulnerable because it can’t adapt or evolve quickly and effectively enough.
Nimble and Focused but Most of all Feisty
An adaptable, innovative, entrepreneurial approach to obstacles and opportunities characterizes the organizations that are most successful in navigating change and uncertainty. Think Amazon, GE, and Google as examples. These companies are structurally nimble – they are willing and able to reorganize in big ways and small as market or customer needs change. They are also purpose-driven and focused on the customer – Amazon, for instance, literally gives the customer a seat in all meetings and uses the question “Does this create value for the customer?” as the basis for any decision.
But that structural agility and customer-focus is only possible because the people in the organization are “feisty” in a culture that supports and reinforces such an approach.
How do people in feisty cultures act? Here’s an attempt to capture the difference.
Amazon, for example, has a list of 14 leadership principles that include curiosity, invention, learning, and a bias for action. Leaders who score high on those principles are given an award saying, “I’m peculiar,” which reinforces the importance of individuality over convention and conformity.
Employees are encouraged to call each other out on things like inflexibility and lack of responsiveness. Amazon prizes vigorous conflict over workplace harmony because it sees argument and blunt feedback as necessary for challenging ideas or suggestions, coming up with new and better ideas or solutions, and fostering innovation.
In other words, Amazon employees are selected for their competitiveness, intensity and zeal but within that mold they are also encouraged to be dynamic, vigorous, and never complacent, even or perhaps especially with each other.
Feisty is Dynamic not Chaotic
Amazon’s culture is strong, but it is constantly in motion. You may not agree with or want to emulate aspects of that culture. That’s not the point. As Bezos himself points out, “we never claim that our approach is the right one — just that it's ours…”
Other feisty cultures become dynamic in different ways. Being true to your culture is key; but making sure your culture fosters feistiness – that agility, innovation, speed, reactivity, and zeal – is critical for navigating and succeeding during times of change and uncertainty.
Amazon also seems to have plenty of contention and conflict, but somehow it manages to stay on track and avoid potential problems like infighting, sabotage, too many cooks in the kitchen, conflicting priorities, etc. The question is how? It manages it by staying true to its commonly shared purpose which is to discover and deliver value to the customer. This priority supersedes all others and gives the answer every time Amazon employees disagree or must decide on the right way to go. If winning an argument results in diminishing customer value, I have no doubt that employee would not last long.
There’s power in Amazon’s cultural formula and it’s a model well worth emulating on your own terms if you've steered and shaped that culture accordingly.