On Principle

Amazon has a set of core leadership principles which are often written about and can be found on their careers site. There is one particular principle which I initially resisted but have come to know as true and valuable. That is the idea that leaders are right a lot, that they have strong business judgment and good instincts. Out of context this idea seemed to me initially like some kind of blanket justification one could wrap around any managerial decision, but it goes deeper than that.

During a recent visit to 37signals Jeff Bezos talked about this principle in a little more depth…

During one of his answers, he shared an enlightened observation about people who are “right a lot”. He said people who were right a lot of the time were people who often changed their minds. He doesn’t think consistency of thought is a particularly positive trait. It’s perfectly healthy — encouraged, even — to have an idea tomorrow that contradicted your idea today.

He’s observed that the smartest people are constantly revising their understanding, reconsidering a problem they thought they’d already solved. They’re open to new points of view, new information, new ideas, contradictions, and challenges to their own way of thinking.

I find I often interact with people who affix their view to a narrow set of facts which support that view. They’re often jumping to conclusions without taking the time to examine all of the available information and in the end they suffer for it. These few facts are usually small details which they can’t seem to let go of or won’t reconcile easily and so they cling to what they know about a problem. Staying connected to details is important but it is also important to be open to the idea that what you knew yesterday may not be as important as what you might learn today. It’s not so easy to help someone to this kind of understanding, often it is easier to persuade them directly through technical merit, knowing that each time you will have to climb the same mountain. Like a good climber, you will always seek to find a better route.

Disclaimer: I have previously worked for Amazon (AWS) and still admire Amazon greatly.