The Essentials of Innovation in the Workplace: Lessons Learned from Amazon General Manager - Published October 10, 2017.
GCA Studios Presents GCA Host Dr. Ginny A. Baro, Founder and CEO of ExecutiveBound™ and Fearless Women @Work™. In this first episode of a series of one-on-one interviews, Dr. Baro engages Game Changers and leaders in a powerful and courageous conversation that highlights the role that a diverse and engaged leadership team and workforce plays in achieving higher levels of performance and success to compete in the global marketplace. In this episode, she sits down with Tatyana Mamut at the time with Amazon Web Services. Together, they discuss how and why leaders and management should create “human-centered” workplaces which are conducive to fostering innovation. Enjoy!
Dr. Ginny A. Baro: Hello, my name is Dr. Ginny Baro, your CGA host on CGA Studios brought to you by Game Change Agency. I'm also the founder of Fearless Women at Work, an executive coaching and career strategy company. For those of you who don't know me, I have been in the financial services and technology industry for the past 26 years. I am thrilled today because I have next to me Tatyana Mamut. She and I will be talking today about a couple of really interesting topics, among other things. We’re going to be talking about creating workplaces that are conducive to innovation. Also designing those workplaces and our products through a human-center approach.
Dr. Ginny A. Baro: I want to introduce you to Tatyana, and let me tell you a little bit about this powerhouse that I have right here. Tatyana is currently the general manager and director of product management, user experience design and mobile and web engineering for Amazon Web Services. She's a transformative leader with a passion for ideas and a drive to win. She's an economic anthropologist and someone who successfully completed impossible projects.
Dr. Ginny A. Baro: Now Tatyana believes that the key to creating value is to understand people better than they understand themselves. Also, designing through a human-center approach, often challenging our technologies to stretch or recombine into new solutions, so welcome Tatyana.
Tatyana Mamut: Well thank you Ginny.
Dr. Ginny A. Baro: Tatyana, I want to start with a pretty basic question. You have a PhD in economics and cultural anthropology. You now work in Silicon Valley, and you are a technology product creator and designer. How did this happen?
Tatyana Mamut: It's funny because you would think, "How does an anthropologist get to manage engineering teams?" I think it'll make sense once I explain the following. That, today the technology is pretty much a commodity. We know so much about technology, it's moving so quickly. There's so many resources on the internet to learn about the technology. Really when it comes down to it, building new technology products comes down to organizing people to build things for other people that they will want.
Dr. Ginny A. Baro: That's right.
Tatyana Mamut: That's really it. It's all about people and it's people all the way down. It's about hiring the teams, motivating them to do the right things. Understanding the mindsets of customers, and then matching those two things about the people who work for me and the customers that I'm designing for. Getting those two things to come together so that we can build really great products and services in the fastest time as possible so we can get them into our customers hands.
Dr. Ginny A. Baro: That's right, and so the two are very complementary.
Tatyana Mamut: They're entirely the same thing actually. It's really all about people. It's people who build the technology and they build it in the service of meeting the needs of other people.
Dr. Ginny A. Baro: That's right. In this field of technology and innovation, building a culture that supports innovation is key. Can you share with us from your own experiences, from what you do currently as a leader at Amazon Web Services, how you go about doing this? What are some of the key challenges and some of the insights that you can share with other leaders that are in similar positions that would help them to create a culture that is conducive to innovation?
Tatyana Mamut: Sure. Well the first thing is I think, as leaders we all need to know, where we're starting from? Who are the people that we have in our organization currently? It's really around assessing what style of leadership do we have, and are we seeing the types of outcomes that we hope to see from our teams? If they aren't, is it because we're not getting the ideas that we want from people that are allowing us to stay ahead of the game or at least keep up with the pace of change that's going on around us? Or is it around getting things to market from the ideas?
Tatyana Mamut: Often what I find in organizations is that there are plenty of ideas. Ideas are cheap and it's really around the leadership creating a structure within the organization to allow those ideas to actually be developed. To prioritize them and have enough patience to allow those ideas to really grow and flourish. That's one key piece of it, is knowing where are you starting from and what do you want to see more of?
Tatyana Mamut: The second piece is, how do you help people really get closer to their customer? When we build something that's new or when we create a new product or service, we have to be clear that we're doing it in service of something that our consumers really want and will value. How do you build what we would call at Amazon the mechanisms? All the way through the organization from the entry level worker, all the way up to the CEO, so that those people that are engaging constantly with not just feedback from customers and sales presentations, or marketing events, but really feedback from customers when they're actually dealing with their frustrations around the product that we've built, and around what really frustrates them?
Tatyana Mamut: Often times focusing on customer problems is far more interesting when we lead to much better ideas than anything else. How do you build and grow an organization where you're close to your customer? Where you give your people the time and give them the space and the infrastructure to then really take what customers say and what you see that they value, and actually start to build up from there?
Dr. Ginny A. Baro: Yeah, well how do you deal with some of the mindsets? In so many cases, leaders are under a lot of pressure. They're in under a lot of pressure to deliver. They are expected to produce certain results, and what you're describing to me sounds completely logical yet I know that when we are in the workplace that ideal environment sometimes it may be difficult to create. What would you say would be like one of the key things that leaders can do to address that?
Tatyana Mamut: Yeah. I'm going to start by saying, there's a thing in Silicon Valley right now and which is very popular. That is embracing failure and recognizing failure and celebrating failure. The reason I bring this up is that, often times the answer to a question like the one that you just asked is, you have to celebrate failure, and you have to allow people to take risks. This is where I get to be a little bit counter to the overall Silicon Valley culture and say that, for me and my teams, failure is never a goal.
Tatyana Mamut: The thing that I try to get my teams to focus on is learning. Success is the goal, delivering very quickly new products and new services that people will love is the goal. We want to get to that as quickly as possible with as little failure as possible. I don't give out failure awards, I don't give out failure recognition. I don't give out failure incentives or anything like that. What I say is, if you have done something and you have been met with a surprise, often times that surprise is a negative surprise, because you will have not gotten the results you expected. You expect to get good results and you got a bad result.
Tatyana Mamut: As long as the teams then go back and analyze what went wrong, what happened, and that analysis leads to a key learning about a customer, or a key learning about the approach that we took that we can then ladder into a new way of doing things that will more likely get us a successful outcome to either that problem or a different problem, that is what we reward.
Tatyana Mamut: We as leaders can be highly tolerant of people getting surprises from their work products. As long as those surprises lead them to a deeper analysis and a deeper understanding of what they should do next. As long as those surprises lead to learning that they will then result in a positive and successful outcome. That is one thing that really in terms of, you asked about the mindset. The mindset that we can instill and engrain in our teams is one in which they are constantly trying and learning. Now they try to succeed, they don't try to fail, they try to succeed. Often if they don't, if they learn and then they succeed, that can be rewarded as equally or sometimes more, because that learning can actually lead to a bigger success than what they had initially been hoping for.
Dr. Ginny A. Baro: Right, and I think what you're saying is, let's not go with the lowest common denominator and celebrate the failure. What you're saying, let's give people credit when they have successfully tried. Even if they had not succeeded, at least we'd learned as an organization from it and we can then go from that place to the next one, rather than go back to zero.
Tatyana Mamut: That's right, and the people who have tried and not succeeded need to take responsibility for that learning. That's also the other thing. I think that accountability and responsibility is very important, and this is where I think a lot of our leaders get it wrong. Which is, they think accountability means that you punish people for trying things and not succeeding.
Tatyana Mamut: What I would say is, as a leader can you take the approach if you don't believe in rewarding failure, and you really don't have enough space in your budget to allow people to experiment a lot and fail. Can you at least reward the people who are taking accountability for their failures, bringing you new learning that resulted from it, and then giving you new approaches that will be successful?
Tatyana Mamut: Now it does take patience on the employees end to do that, because it takes time to learn from your failure. It takes putting your ego aside. It takes a whole bunch of things that a lot of people naturally don't do. They often try to hide from the failure, they try to run away from the failure. Can you actually ask them to take responsibility for it in a positive way, unpack it so that we can learn? Then come up with a recommendation based on that learning about what does success look like, given the surprise that you've gotten out of the last thing that you've tried?
Dr. Ginny A. Baro: It sounds to me like the mindset shift has to happen on all levels, from the employee to the supervisor, to the management team so that everybody knows that this new approach is actually embraced by the organizational culture, and that it will be rewarded accordingly.
Tatyana Mamut: That's right, and it starts with leadership.
Dr. Ginny A. Baro: That's right.
Tatyana Mamut: I really believe it always starts with leadership. People respond to what their leaders do, how their leaders behave, and what they are rewarded and incentivized to do to be quite honest. Often times I hear things like, "Oh I'm from so and so country and therefore we have a culture without risk taking." I've worked all over the world, I've worked in Asia, I've worked in Moscow, I've worked in France, I've worked in England. I've worked in many places in the United States. In each one of those places, there are organizations still within the same country, still with the same cultural mindset that are able to get people to be more risk taking or have more innovative products and services coming out of that particular company.
Tatyana Mamut: The reason why is because, the leadership has thought about their organizational culture in a very precise way. They've actually grappled with, what do we need to do to actually structure our organization in a way that will get us the type of culture that we want, and therefore the types of business outcomes that we want? It starts with the leadership asking themselves that question, and then the leaders need to model that behavior. It's not just about saying things, it's about doing them and behaving that same way. The CEO and their direct reports behaving in exactly the same way and holding themselves accountable in the exact same way that they want their managers to hold the front line employees accountable. Starting to model that behavior and consistently communicating not just through words, but through actions the type of culture that they want to build. Regardless of what country you're in, I have seen that work.
Dr. Ginny A. Baro: Right, so Tatyana, also what I'm hearing what you're saying is, as an anthropologist and really looking at the human-center approach, as leaders to me it sounds like we also need to stay very close to the source and to our employees. To see what is working for them and what isn't working for them, because sometimes we tend to jump to conclusions when things aren't working. If we don't really understand as well as we understand our client, if we don't understand our employees and what is happening, there could be a disconnect between the message, the results that we want and what is actually happening.
Tatyana Mamut: Yes. I think that's absolutely true. Early in my career, my very first boss out of college was Scott Edwards, who is a fantastic just manager. The first thing he taught me was the practice of managing by walking around. Wherever he didn't have a meeting or when he wasn't in meetings he would just walk the halls and walk past all of his entire organization. Pop in and say, "How are you doing? Is there anything I can do for you?" That to me as someone right out of college that a vice president would be walking the halls and asking a 22 year old, "How are you doing and is there anything I can help you with?" Made a really big impact on me.
Tatyana Mamut: I often would ask him questions about the strategy or about the next projects coming up, and it really helped me both see the larger context of the business. It also helped me navigate my career, right, because then if I asked him, what new things are coming up, what should I be planning for, I would know what projects were coming up. I could myself in a position right to be a little bit more proactive and get the next awesome project, because I would ask him.
Tatyana Mamut: I have done that my entire career. I am a big believer in no matter what level you're at, whether you're the CEO of a 300,000 person company, it is great to just walk around every once in a while. Pop in with people and say, "How are you doing? Is there anything I can help you with?"
Dr. Ginny A. Baro: That's right.
Tatyana Mamut: I think you'll find that the impact on people is really big. They will often call you over to their computer and say, "Hey, I'm working on this thing, can you please take a look?" Then you will actually see what people are doing, and how they're working. You can actually just sense the energy of the place when you're walking around. Get out of your office, walk around and actually engage with people. Ask them like, "Is there anything I can help you with?" Most of the times people are going to be like, "No, I'm good." If you sense that there's somewhere else that you should dig, also trust your intuition and dig a little bit more and be like, "Oh okay. Well if there's anyway I can help you, let me know. I hear you're working on this project, how is that going?" Really trust your intuition and encourage people to actually talk openly with you.
Dr. Ginny A. Baro: I like that. I like it a lot. I know that the gala pool came out in 2015 indicating that 52% of our employees are not engaged. I think this is a great solution to begin and simple right?
Tatyana Mamut: Yes.
Dr. Ginny A. Baro: It doesn't require a big budget.
Tatyana Mamut: No.
Dr. Ginny A. Baro: It doesn't require a big committee to get together to discuss it. This is simply walking the hallways.
Tatyana Mamut: Yeah. Also, when you're a leader, and you think that there's something, a different place were you want your organization to go, one thing that I would ask leaders to think about is in the same way that we design products, we can actually start to design organizations.
Dr. Ginny A. Baro: Tell me more about that.
Tatyana Mamut: Yes, the four levers that we can use to actually think about how to design our organizations are four Ss. They're easy to remember, story, structure, systems and skills. Story is the storytelling that we do as leaders. The thing to understand about story is, what I often see CEOs who want to build more innovative cultures, what I often see them do is, bring together an executive meeting. Have like a one day offsite somewhere, and then they come up with their new corporate values. Those new corporate values are, innovation, risk taking and customer obsession, right, for example or customer focus.
Tatyana Mamut: Then the CEO will come back and the next day they will write an email. That email will say, "Employees, yesterday we had an offsite. We have decided we are going to be a more innovative company. Our new values are innovation, risk taking and customer focus. If you have any questions please let me know." Does this sound familiar?
Dr. Ginny A. Baro: Oh yes.
Tatyana Mamut: Sounds familiar, yeah, it sounds familiar to everybody. The response in almost every organization is, business as usual. Right?
Dr. Ginny A. Baro: That's right.
Tatyana Mamut: Would you agree, yes?
Dr. Ginny A. Baro: I agree.
Tatyana Mamut: Because there is nothing there other than words. There is nothing there that makes me believe that there's a new direction. There is nothing there in the delivery of the information, that that was in any way innovative. Sending an email is certainly not the CEO taking a risk.
Dr. Ginny A. Baro: Not innovative.
Tatyana Mamut: There is nothing about the customer.
Dr. Ginny A. Baro: That's right.
Tatyana Mamut: Not only did your format fall short, but the content doesn't match the way that you deliver that story. Imagine if the CEO had done something else, which is, okay we want to really emphasize risk taking and innovation and customer focus. The CEO brings together the top two customers of the company. Puts them on stage and asks them to speak to him openly about all the things that are really, really bad about the company and the product. That's pretty risky.
Dr. Ginny A. Baro: I was going to say, that's risk taking right there.
Tatyana Mamut: That's risk taking, that's innovative.
Dr. Ginny A. Baro: Customer focused.
Tatyana Mamut: It's customer focused.
Dr. Ginny A. Baro: And innovative.
Tatyana Mamut: Right?
Dr. Ginny A. Baro: Yes.
Tatyana Mamut: Now do people get the message in the company that the CEO really believes in this?
Dr. Ginny A. Baro: Absolutely.
Tatyana Mamut: He or she is putting themselves out there, to be talked to very negatively by their two top customers about all the bad things that have happened to them. Storytelling is extraordinarily important and there is almost nothing more important in the CEO's job than storytelling, and storytelling in the right way.
Tatyana Mamut: Jeff Bezos the CEO of Amazon, if you read his shareholder letters, they are all stories to the employees and potential employees of the organization about what is the culture of the organization. It's not about the investment strategy. It's really about what is the DNA of this organization and where is it going, and you really believe it based on those words. You still can write, there's nothing wrong with writing, but it has to come off in a believable way. That's story.
Tatyana Mamut: The second is structure and this is the basic organizational chart. The question is, how are you organizing the company and what are you optimizing the company for? If all of the creative part of the company reports into engineering or reports into operations, how important is the creative part to this company? You can just see it in the work chart often. Where is the decision making authority literally situated in the org chart? Who gets to make decision? Who do those decisions need to pass through in order to get the budget that they need for the ideas, to both see the light of day and to survive? That you can often read directly off an org chart. How do you structure the organization?
Tatyana Mamut: The third one is systems. Systems are the formal and informal processes within an organization, so the product development process of course for innovation is very, very important.