What campaigns can learn from Jeff Bezos

July 30, 2017

On Thursday morning, I opened the New York Times to read two stories that reveal an America rapidly adjusting to the growth of Amazon. One story was about a Credit Suisse analysis predicting that 20 to 25 percent of existing malls in America will close within the next five years — and the other was about the impending extinction of country stores (also called “general stores”). Those stories appeared in the Times on the same day that Forbes revealed Jeff Bezos has become the richest man in the world and on the same week that Amazon posted a 25% spike in second quarter profits.

Amazon is dominating our lives and will soon dominate our politics. That’s why The Arena will spend considerable time working through the policy implications of Amazon’s growth. But today I want to share some lessons from their performance culture. There’s plenty to avoid in their culture (and those critiques have been prominently chronicled in the New York Times), but Amazon has also accumulated some wisdom as well.

That wisdom is best encapsulated in Bezos’ 2017 Annual Investor Letter. Bezos starts by reminding the company that they are still in “Day 1,” meaning they are still hungry, hustling, and focused — as if they had just launched. He cautions against a “Day 2” mentality:

“Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.”

Almost every recommendation in Bezos’ letter can be applied to our campaigns and political organizations. I will outline a few here.

Resist proxies

“As companies get larger and more complex, there’s a tendency to manage to proxies. . . A common example is process as proxy. Good process serves you so you can serve customers. But if you’re not watchful, the process can become the thing. This can happen very easily in large organizations. The process becomes the proxy for the result you want.”

Campaigns and political organizations manage by proxies all of the time. One example is the subject of partnerships. In this new era of unprecedented entrepreneurship on the left, there’s tremendous pressure to collaborate with every organization that shows up in your inbox. But partnerships are a means to an end, not ends in themselves. If an organization doesn’t help serve your mission or candidacy, politely decline (even if that organization is The Arena!).

Another particularly dangerous proxy is polling data. Bezos actually addresses this issue directly:

“Another example: market research and customer surveys can become proxies for customers – something that’s especially dangerous when you’re inventing and designing products. “Fifty-five percent of beta testers report being satisfied with this feature. That is up from 47% in the first survey.” That’s hard to interpret and could unintentionally mislead. Good inventors and designers deeply understand their customer. They spend tremendous energy developing that intuition. They study and understand many anecdotes rather than only the averages you’ll find on surveys. They live with the design.”

Last week, I met with a first-time candidate for congress and asked him what his values are. He started talking about the polls. As my old boss David Axelrod used to say, if you need a poll to tell you why you are running or what you believe, then you shouldn’t be running. Polls can help inform how you communicate your values and beliefs, but not what those beliefs are. Additionally, true leaders can channel the deeper values of their constituents and move them forward on issues (Mayor Pete eloquently addressed this at The Arena Summit in Raleigh). If you don’t have a deep intuitive sense of your voters’ hopes and dreams, you shouldn’t be running.

Customer obsession

“There are many ways to center a business. You can be competitor focused, you can be product focused, you can be technology focused, you can be business model focused, and there are more. But in my view, obsessive customer focus is by far the most protective of Day 1 vitality.“

If we replace “customer” here with “voter,” we have another lesson for campaigns. Campaigns and political organizations can, and often are, too focused on their opponents, their donors, and their peers. If “focus on the voter” seems like an obvious point, then you should read the book Democracy for Realists, which painstakingly details how unresponsive politicians are to their actual voters.

For example, many have argued that an over-obsession with our opponent (for those of us who supported Hillary) was a core mistake of the 2016 Presidential campaign. I’ve also seen far too many campaigns get carried away with new gadgets and models, and lose site of the purpose of elections — to appeal to actual people. And the peer and donor-obsession is particularly notable right now with new organizations. Since the election, I’ve been in far too many meetings, retreats, and conference calls of new political organizations where the onus is on impressing each other or donors. I could go on, but voters are the focus in far too few corners of our politics.

Bezos also makes a distinction between serving your customer and pandering to your customer — a lesson our campaigns can surely learn from.

“[C]ustomers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied, even when they report being happy and business is great. Even when they don’t yet know it, customers want something better, and your desire to delight customers will drive you to invent on their behalf. No customer ever asked Amazon to create the Prime membership program, but it sure turns out they wanted it, and I could give you many such examples.”

Embrace external trends

“The outside world can push you into Day 2 if you won’t or can’t embrace powerful trends quickly. If you fight them, you’re probably fighting the future. Embrace them and you have a tailwind. These big trends are not that hard to spot (they get talked and written about a lot), but they can be strangely hard for large organizations to embrace.”

The most obvious external trend staring us in the face is the transition to digital messaging and away from television advertising. “Digital messaging” may even be an outdated term at this point, but we can save that discussion for another time. Yet, as I type, many promising campaigns are being cajoled into expensive contracts with media consultants who are experts in traditional TV advertising. Many of these consultants will admit in private that their days are numbered. There is no reason why a 2018 campaign should be locked into any arrangement regarding TV ads right now; in many campaigns those ads won’t be placed for a year. Instead, campaigns should preserve their leverage and instead focus on meeting voters face-to-face (converting them to volunteers), raising money, and developing a digital strategy.

Disagree and commit

“Third, use the phrase ‘disagree and commit.’ This phrase will save a lot of time. If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, “Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?” By the time you’re at this point, no one can know the answer for sure, and you’ll probably get a quick yes.”

At the network of schools I used to run, we used to call this “weigh in to buy in.” Meaning, each stakeholder, whenever possible, should be given a chance to weigh in on a decision (if you want a deep dive on the need for open debate, read the book Radical Candor by Kim Scott). But once a decision is made, all stakeholders must commit to implement and defend that decision. It should be impossible for any outsiders and subordinates to know which stakeholders held which beliefs on a given issue. Shattered would be a lot less interesting of a read if the Clinton campaign applied this lesson.

These are just a few lessons. I strongly recommend that you read the letter in full.