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3 Innovation Lessons From Jeff Bezos

Jeff Bezos just became the world’s richest man. His creation, Amazon, is an incredible company. The consistency and breadth of innovation it has produced over the past two decades is awe-inspiring. Bezos is undoubtedly the force behind this relentlessness, and I find him fascinating to listen to and study. In the following 38-minute interview, he gives us a compelling glimpse into the mindset he’s created at Amazon that underpins its success. Some of the points struck a chord with me, so I’ve made a short summary below.

The 3 principles of Amazon

People see Amazon differently. Is it an e-commerce site, a retailer, an innovative tech company? Its products and services range from cloud computing, original content, direct publishing platform, Alexa and many other things. So how should we think about Amazon?

Bezos sees Amazon more as an approach:

“We have a very distinctive approach that we have been honing and refining and thinking about for 22 years. It’s really just a few principles that we use, as we go about thinking through the different activities we work on.”

See also: Time to Rethink Silicon Valley?  

Those few principles are:

1. Customer obsession

This is the fundamental driving force behind Amazon’s business. Instead of, say, a competitor obsession, technology obsession or product obsession model. These other models can work just fine. A competitor obsession can be a very good strategy for some companies: You have to watch your competitors very closely. If they latch onto something that’s working, you duplicate it as quickly as possible. It means you don’t have to be a pioneer, and you don’t have to venture down many blind alleys. But there are disadvantages, and the customer obsession model is the one Bezos believes is right for Amazon, in combination with the following two principles.

2. A willingness, or even an eagerness to invent and pioneer

This marries very well with the customer obsession. According to Bezos, customers are always dissatisfied, even when they think they are happy. They actually do want a better way; they just don’t know what that way should be yet.

Customer obsession is not just listening to your customers, but it means inventing on their behalf. It’s not their job to invent for themselves, you must be the inventor and the pioneer for them.

3. Long-term oriented

Bezos encourages his employees not to think in two- to three-year timeframes, but in five- to seven-year timeframes. People often congratulate Bezos on quarterly results, but for Bezos these results were actually baked in about three years ago. Today, he’s thinking about a quarter that’s going to happen in 2020. Next quarter, for all practical purposes, is probably already done and has been done for a couple of years. But the long-term mentality is not a natural way for humans to think. Bezos believes it’s a discipline that you have to train and build for.

“If you start thinking this way, it changes how you spend your time, how you plan, where you put your energy. Your ability to look around corners improves. Many things just get better.”

In conclusion, Amazon is an approach and a collection of principles that they embed into how they think and work.

Failure and the importance of experimentation

Despite being the world’s richest person, and Amazon being wildly successful, what keeps Bezos sharp and focused? It’s the fear of Amazon losing its way in one of the key areas mentioned above. Or that they become overly cautious, or failure-adverse, and therefore become unable to invent and pioneer.

“You cannot invent and pioneer if you cannot accept failure. To invent, you need to experiment. If you know in advance that it’s going to work, it is not an experiment.”

Failure and invention are inseparable twins. But it’s embarrassing to fail. If you have a 10% chance of a 100x return, you should take that bet every time, but you will still be wrong nine times out of 10, and you’ll feel bad about every one of those nine failures, even embarrassed. Overcoming this fear is vital, particularly in the technology business.

In technology, the outcomes can be very long-tailed, with an asymmetric payoff. This is why you need to do so much experimentation. As an illustration:

“In baseball, everybody knows that if you swing for the fences, you hit more home runs, but you also strike out more. But baseball doesn’t go far enough [as an analogy for technology]. No matter how well you connect with the ball, you can only get four runs. The success is capped at those four runs. But in the technology business, every once in a while you step up to the plate, and you hit the ball so hard you get 1,000 runs.”

This asymmetric payoff makes it obvious to experiment more, increasing the chances of that 1,000-run hit.

It’s important to make this distinction on failure, though: The right kind of failure is when working on an invention, an experiment that you cannot know the outcome of. The wrong kind of failure is when you have some operational history in the task, where you know what you’re doing, but you just screw it up. This is not a good failure. An example from Bezos:

“We’ve opened 130 fulfillment centers now; we’re on the eighth generation of our fulfillment center technology. So if we opened a new center, and just messed it up, that’s not an experiment, that’s bad execution.”

Defining your big ideas

Any entrepreneur, organization or governmental institution should identify their big ideas that encapsulate what they’re trying to do. There should only be two or three of these big ideas. The main job of a senior leader is to identify those important ideas, and then to enforce great execution on them throughout the organization. The good news is that the big ideas are usually incredibly easy to identify, and in most cases you’ll already know what they are.

For Amazon’s consumer business, the three big ideas are:

  • Low prices
  • Fast delivery
  • Vast selection

“How do we always deliver things a little faster? How do we always reduce our cost structure, so that we can have prices that are a little lower?”

See also: The Key to Digital Innovation Success  

The big ideas are stable. They will most probably be the same in 10 years. Customers will still like low prices and faster delivery. No matter what happens with technology, these things will still remain true.

“When you have your big ideas, you can keep putting energy into them. You spin up flywheels around them, and they’ll still be paying you dividends 10 years from now.”

Bezos also discusses machine learning, renewable energy and space exploration, but not once in the entire discussion does he mention the word “innovation.” A reminder that those who really do innovate don’t talk about innovation.

Time to Rethink Silicon Valley?

The downfall of Travis Kalanick should show the world of would-be tech entrepreneurs that they need better role models, that they need to stop looking up to the spoiled brats who lead some of Silicon Valley’s most hyped companies and the investors who fund their misbehavior.

Travis Kalanick’s ouster from Uber is literally a watershed for the Valley, something that is capable of shaking up its entrepreneurs and venture capitalists alike. For too long, the elite have gotten away with sexism, ageism and, to coin a word, unethicalism. The cult of the entrepreneur idolized arrogant male founders who plundered money and even sank companies; the more money they raised (and often lost), the higher the valuations their companies received and the more respect they gained. Corporate governance and social responsibility were treated as foreign concepts.

Uber was not the worst offender in the tech industry; it was just the most visible and the one that got caught. Its investors have been rightly humiliated for having their heads in the sand. This is because it has for so long been clear that Uber needs management that is more responsible — to its employees, its drivers and its customers.

The trouble first surfaced in 2013, when complaints about male drivers’ assaulting female passengers met with denials of responsibility by the company. Then followed sexist “boober” comments by Kalanick; ads in France that pitched attractive female drivers; suggestions by an Uber executive that he would dig up dirt on a journalist; and the rape of a woman passenger in New Delhi partly caused by a lax screening of drivers.

See also: What to Learn From Uber’s Recent Troubles  

But through all of this, Uber investors supported the company and accepted the ethical lapses as if they hadn’t happened. All that seemed to matter was that valuations were rising; the business, expanding. Who cared that a top Uber executive had secured a copy of the medical report of the Delhi rape victim and shared it with other company executives, including Travis Kalanick, in an attempt to discredit her? The company was growing; investors were valuing it in the billions!

Things finally reached a boiling point with a series of allegations by a woman employee about rampant sexism and sexual assault at Uber headquarters. And, fortuitously, a board member illustrated the root of the problem by making a sexist remark at a meeting about eliminating sexism. The board was finally compelled to do something it should have done years ago: force Kalanick out and clean up its act.

To be fair, there are many technology companies that are, in this regard, exemplary, including Salesforce, Microsoft and Facebook. They are going to extremes to correct problems that they had found in their ranks. I know from discussions with executives such as Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella that they have been working hard and sincerely. But too many Silicon Valley stars are like Uber.

With the help of Arianna Huffington and Eric Holder, the company is at last working on reforming itself. And maybe the downfall of Kalanick will provide not only valuable but lasting lessons for the hotshots of Silicon Valley, and of tech cultures worldwide. If Uber can do it, so can the rest of the Boys Club. They have to realize that press releases won’t suffice, that real change is necessary.

Who are “they”? To begin with, the people who fund the offenders, the venture capitalists. They have not been held accountable, and they need to be.

The Diana Project at Babson College documented that, as of 2014, 85% of all venture capital-funded businesses had no women on the executive team, and only 2.7% had a woman CEO. The proportion of women partners in venture capital firms had also declined to 6% from 10% in 1999. And this is part of the problem for an obvious reason: Women don’t tolerate boys-will-be-boys behavior, because they aren’t boys. Moreover, as any number of studies have documented, diversity in companies yields a broader range of perspectives on the business itself and, often, better bottom-line results. And, as I have pointed out, high-tech women who are measurably better than men have been consistently discriminated against.

Venture capitalists are susceptible to business pressure. The money that they invest is not their own. It is raised from pension funds, universities and state governments. They must require venture capital firms to provide public disclosures about the diversity of the companies they invest in — including the gender and age of the executives. They must have a diverse set of investment partners, without sugarcoating the numbers using inflated titles for junior associates.

Next are the boards. Venture capitalists demand seats on boards as a condition for their investment but don’t usually fulfill their fiduciary duty to all shareholders and employees — they always put the interests of their own funds ahead of those of the company. They must take responsibility for the employees as well as for the success of the company, as board members are supposed to do. And startups must have diverse boards that provide balance and broad perspective, not chummy boys clubs dominated by venture capitalists.

Finally, all tech companies must take heed of the report that was put together by former Attorney General Eric Holder for Uber. There are obvious procedures to employ in making diversity a priority: such things as blind resume reviews; interviewing at least one woman and one minority candidate for each open position; limiting alcohol at work events and in the office and banning employee-manager relationships.

In most industries, discriminating on the basis of gender, race or age would be considered illegal. Yet, in the tech industry, venture capitalists brag about their “pattern recognition” capabilities. They say they can recognize a successful entrepreneur when they see one. The pattern always resembles Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos a nerdy male. Women, blacks and Latinos need not apply. Venture capitalists openly admit that they only fund young entrepreneurs because, they claim, older people can’t innovate.

See also: A Trip Through Silicon Valley  

Silicon Valley got a free pass when computers were just for nerds and hobbyists. Few cared about its arrogance and insularity, because its companies were building products for people who looked just like their founders. And these child geniuses inspired so much awe that their frat-boy behavior was a topic of amusement. But now technology is everywhere; it is the underpinning of our economic growth. What is more, the public is investing billions of dollars in tech companies and expects professionalism, maturity and corporate social responsibility.

There is no free pass for the tech industry anymore. It must grow up and clean house.

The Key to Digital Innovation Success

More than a half century ago, Ted Levitt transformed the strategic marketing agenda by asking a seemingly simple question. In his classic Harvard Business Review article “Marketing Myopia,” Levitt declared that truly effective executives needed the courage, creativity and self-discipline to answer, “What business are we really in?”

Were railroads, he asked, in the railroad business or the transportation business? Are oil companies in the oil business or hydrocarbon or energy business? The distinctions aren’t subtle, Levitt argued, and they subverted how companies saw their futures. Marketing myopia blinded firms to both disruptive threats and innovation opportunities.

Levitt’s provocative question remains both potent and perceptive for marketers today. But my research in human capital investment and “network effects” suggests that it, too, needs a little visionary help. Increasingly, successful market leaders and innovators – the Amazons, Apples, Googles, Facebooks, Netflixs and Ubers– also ask, “Who do we want our customers to become?”

That question is as mission-critical for insurance and financial services innovators as for Silicon Valley startups. The digitally disruptive influence of platforms, algorithms and analytics comes not just from how they transform internal enterprise economics but from their combined abilities to transform customers and clients, as well. Successful innovators transform their customers.

See also: The 7 Colors of Digital Innovation  

The essential insight: Innovation isn’t just an investment in product enhancement or better customer experience; innovation is an investment in your customer’s future value. Simply put, innovation is an investment in the human capital, capabilities, competencies and creativity of one’s customers and clients.

This is as true for professional services and business-to-business industries as for consumer products and services companies.

History gives great credence to this “human capital” model of innovation. Henry Ford didn’t just facilitate “mass production,” he enabled the human capital of “driving.” George Eastman didn’t just create cheap cameras and films; Kodak created photographers. Sam Walton’s Walmart successfully deployed scale, satellite and supply chain superiority that transformed “typical” shoppers into higher-volume, one-stop, everyday-low-pricing customers.

Similarly, Steve Jobs didn’t merely “reinvent” personal computing and mobile telephony; he reinvented how people physically touched, stroked and talked to their devices. Google’s core technology breakthrough may appear to be “search,” but the success of the company’s algorithms and business model is contingent upon creating more than a billion smart “searchers” worldwide.

The essential economic takeaway is that sustainable innovation success doesn’t revolve simply around what innovations “do”; it builds on what they invite customers to become. Simply put, making customers better makes better customers.

Successful companies have a “vision of the customer future” that matters every bit as much as their products and services road maps.

Insurance, fintech and insurtech industries should be no different. The same digital innovation and transformation dynamics apply. That means financial services firms must go beyond the “faster, better, cheaper” innovation ethos to ask how their innovations will profitably transform customer behaviors, capabilities and expectations.

In other words, it’s not enough to answer Levitt’s question by declaring, “We’re in the auto/property/life insurance business.” The challenge comes from determining how insurance companies want their new products, innovative services and novel user experiences to transform their customers. How can insurance companies invest in their customers in ways that make them more valuable? Who are they asking their customers to become?

So when insurers innovate in ways that give customers and prospects new capabilities — like Progressive’s price-comparison tools and Snapshot vehicle-usage plug-ins or Allstate’s mobile-phone-enabled QuickFoto claims submission option — they’re not just solving problems but asking customers to engage in ways they never had before.

Who are these companies asking their customers to become? People who will comparison shop; allow themselves to be monitored in exchange for better prices and better service; collaboratively gather digital data to review and expedite claims. These are but the first generation of innovation investments that suggest tomorrow’s customers will do much more.

This is of a piece with how a Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg or Reed Hastings innovates to make their customers — not just their products — more valuable.

Today’s Web 2.0 “network effects” business model — where a service becomes more valuable the more people use it — are superb examples of how smart companies recognize that their own futures depend on how ingeniously they invest in the future capabilities of their customers. Their continuous innovation is contingent on their customers’ continuous improvement. Call it “customer kaizen.”

How rigorously and ruthlessly fintech, insurtech and insurance companies champion this innovation ethos will prove crucial to their success. Being in “the blockchain business” is radically and fundamentally different than asking who we want our blockchain users to become.

See also: ‘Digital’ Needs a Personal Touch  

Giving better, faster and cheaper advice on risk management via digital devices is different than fundamentally transforming how customers perceive and manage risk. It’s the difference between “transactional innovation” and innovation based on more sustainable relationships of mutual gain.

The insurance industry needs to transform its innovation mindset. Start thinking how innovations make customers and clients more valuable. If your innovations aren’t explicit, measurable investments in your customers’ futures, then you are taking a myopic view of your own.

Today’s strategic marketing and innovation challenge is how best to align “What business are we in?” with “Who do we want our customers to become?”

Innovation, Community and Timelessness

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”

This is the opening line of the very famous poem called Endymion by John Keats, published in the early 1800s.

While this line is intended to set up a beautiful story about timeless romance, the line itself in popular culture has been used in literature, movies, ads and general conversation to describe everything from nature to art to science and more.

Why? Because Keats did an awesome job of extracting the nuance of something that everyone can relate to — not just love, not just beauty, but timelessness. It’s human nature to want timelessness and sometimes even take it for granted.

Good innovators know when something is going to fail the timelessness test. However, great innovators look at what’s failed or failing and, like a priceless painting unrecognizable from years of dust, extract what’s timeless and work hard to put it into a modern context.

Let’s look at some of the most famous modern innovators and put a label on what timeless element they extracted and modernized.

  • Steve Jobs (Apple): 24/7 connection to what’s important
  • Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook): Social exchange and acceptance
  • Jeff Bezos (Amazon): Convenience and time-saving
  • Travis Kalanick (Uber): Anything on demand, including a job

Any company that is constantly looking at its products and their applicability to new consumers is practicing good innovation. However, those that can define the nugget of timelessness have a greater advantage.

See also: Innovation Challenge for Commercial Lines  

Recently, my colleagues and I have had the privilege of working with the American Fraternal Alliance, and we’re in the midst of an inspiring innovation initiative for what could be considered a dusty corner of the life insurance industry.

1. Why is it dusty?

For background, fraternal benefit societies are organizations of people who usually share a common ethnic, religious or vocational affiliation and may provide insurance to members, primarily life insurance. While this model dates back hundreds of years, the dustiness doesn’t come just from age. For starters, the practices and language used by these societies can conjure up outdated or inaccurate images because connotations of words and phrases change over time. More important, for some, there is a decline or weakening of the common bond that drew the group together in the first place, requiring it to be updated.

2. Why is it inspiring?

The insurance industry provides a valuable utility to the public, yet consumers today have a negative impression of the industry. Recent developments in healthcare don’t help that impression. Fraternals are a special kind of insurance organization that is required to give profits back to their communities; thereby, done right, they shift the focus naturally from what they offer to why they offer it.

3. What do they want to accomplish?

The American Fraternal Alliance members want to reposition the fraternal model into the modern day and help more consumers understand it. However, it’s not an exercise of logos and fonts or sexy models selling something. It’s about finding and extracting what’s timeless and then communicating that in the right way.

4. How did they start?

This group started with a small investment, to determine if there was an opportunity in the first place. What was found was very encouraging. While the awareness levels in the market were quite low as a starting point, when consumers intending to buy life insurance in the next two years were provided with a simple description of a fraternal, the overall impression was very positive. Then, when fraternals were described in a new way, overall positive impression went up by another 23 percentage points. Further, the interest level in buying from a fraternal was 70% when prospects were exposed to a new positioning message.

This is further validated by signals in the market. We see younger consumers favoring brands that give back to communities all around the world. In addition, the disruptors in insurance are leveraging new definitions of community as a selling point for peer-to-peer models.

See also: Examining Potential of Peer-to-Peer Insurers  

That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of work still to be done. However, the innovation lesson here for the life insurance industry may be that community is timeless, and modernizing it may mean more to the future of insurance than modernizing insurance itself. Extracting what community really means and working hard to deliver on that value is what will ultimately move the needle in a meaningful way. Fraternals, dustiness aside, are in a great position to do that.

Is This the Day the Data Died?

Who can forget Don McLean’s iconic “American Pie”? Released in 1971, it was a four-week No. 1 hit in the U.S. It is listed as the No. 5 song of the century by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the National Endowment for the Arts. The original 16-page manuscript sold for $1.2 million last year.

For me, the most memorable line in the nearly 800-word, eight-and-a-half-minute song is: “The day the music died.” It marks Feb. 3, 1959, where there was a seismic shift in music. The senseless and untimely deaths of rock-and-roll legends Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson) are interpreted in highly symbolic and blurry verbal pictures.

After the recent presidential election, the question before us is whether Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, will become known as “the day the data died.”

No matter your political or ideological viewpoint, no one predicted what happened at the polls. Even with mountains of data and 21st century technology, mainstream media and academia completely missed the mark — and not by a little. We now know that the data wasn’t just slightly off track; it was a couple of interstate exits away from reality.

See also: Some Things Are Too Important for Paper

To try to figure out where we in the insurance industry should go from here in terms of thinking about how to use data and of projecting trends, I revisited a number of new technologies that either did not live up to the hype or just never achieved the projected dominance. Here are some of my favorites and their potential insurtech applications:

Quadrophonic Sound

Debuting in 1971, it had four-track sound instead of a stereo’s two. And everyone knows more is always better. Quadrophonic sound was portrayed as not just sitting in front of musicians but sitting in the middle of them. I actually bought a quad system with four speakers and some tapes. The problem was that there are about a billion ways to produce recordings, and no single format was ever agreed on.

Implications for Insurtech

Standards are vitally important for insurance data exchange and widespread blockchain deployment and success. But, as a McKinsey report noted, the insurance industry is not known for its cooperation, its creation of standards, its adoption or its enforcement of standards.

The Segway

Steve Jobs said it would be bigger than the PC. Time magazine called it “reinventing the wheel.” Venture capitalist John Doerr (who backed Netscape and Amazon) said it would be bigger than the internet. Jeff Bezos spurred huge hype, saying the Segway “is one of the most famous and anticipated product introductions of all time.” With pre-orders from the National Park Service and the U.S. Postal Service and with more than $90 million in venture capital funds, the Segway’s inventor, Dean Kamen, said it would be to the car what “the car was to the horse and buggy.” All original 6,000 Segways were rapidly recalled because of customer injuries when the battery was low. While it has bounced back a little bit, the Segway never lived up to its hype.

Implications

If you Google “insurtech,” you get more than half a billion hits. With more than 800 insurtech startups and almost 150 deals worth $3.5 billion of investment since 2015, insurtech is a force to be reckoned with. There is more than enough hype to go around. Remember that just because an analyst, consultant or media outlet writes about a company or technology does not mean it is destined to take over the world — or even survive.

Microwave Ovens

Everyone reading these words probably just about blew a gasket when they saw microwave ovens on this list of technologies that have not lived up to their promise. With more than 100 million units shipped in the past 10 years, how could microwave ovens be declared a failure? Well, microwaves were originally advertised as the death knell of traditional ovens. It’s not that microwaves are a failure, per se, it is that they never lived up to the hype. More than three million traditional ovens are still being sold annually, with a full 33% increase in sales over the past five years. As microwave radiation (yes, radiation) is used to heat water inside of food, it cooks from the inside-out. While microwave ovens are great for popcorn and reheating, they still cannot brown or fry, nor are they terrific for baking. I once caused a minor event (a fire) at work when I reheated some chicken in the microwave. I had failed to notice that the paper wrapping from the grocery store where I bought the chicken was lined with foil. While the ensuing fireworks and smoke were entertaining, my coworkers were less than thrilled.

Implications

While I keep count of the number of times I’ve ridden Pirates of the Caribbean in Walt Disney World (42 as of this article), I have completely lost count of the number of times the death of the mainframe was pronounced with great fanfare and assurance. The tablet was supposed to replace the PC, but, like the microwave, it has become a complementary device. We all need to exercise patience and caution whenever the next “bright shiny object” is set forth.

Razor Phone

No, this is not a spelling error or an April Fools’ prank. Not only did someone actually think it was a good idea to combine two wildly different technologies in a single device, someone else approved and financed it. I find it hard to understand what a cell phone and electric razor have in common other than they are both battery powered and operate next to your face. Having a similar name to Motorola’s Razr phone turned out to create colossal confusion; the bottom line is that consumers were not at all attracted to this “cutting edge” device.

Implications

Putting together different technologies may make some sense or add value on the surface, but it may also have unintended consequences. I once worked for an insurance company that built a 40-story headquarters. It aggressively employed all the latest safety designs and technologies. One Monday morning, I woke up to discover that I could not go to work because of a significant fire on the fourth floor. It was later discovered that an office machine caught fire and burned undetected for about eight hours, causing considerable damage and disruption to the company. How could a fire burn that long without being detected, you may ask? The problem was the same as the Razr Phone: two technologies that seemed to make sense but had results that were problematic (at best). Smoke detectors were imbedded into the ventilation system and, to conserve electricity, the ventilation system had been turned off over the weekend, disabling the smoke detectors’ sensors. With no smoke detectors, the fire was allowed to burn until an overnight computer operator happened to open the door to the 25th floor stairway. With smoke billowing out, the operator manually pulled the fire alarm. One other note: With its reliance on all the latest technology and fire resistant materials, the building did not have sprinklers, much to the chagrin of the insurance company, the architect and city officials who approved the plans. A state-of-the-art sprinkler system was retrofitted, costing much more than if it had been installed during the original construction.

See also: The End of Leadership as We Know It?  

While no one should boast about the outcome of the recent elections, we all should question what is going on when it comes to the media and “the experts” who proudly boast they know the truth because they have the data.

In these cases, their feet were firmly planted in the air.