Amazon is better at innovating outside their core than Google or Apple. Amazon successes – AWS, Prime, Echo, Go, etc. – outshine Googles attempts – Nest, Glass, Robots, self-driving cars etc. This is the conclusion reached by the author who lists several reasons for Amazon’s relative success:

  • Amazon leads with customer needs. Bezos is known to insist that people pitching new ideas start with showing him an ad for the new offering.
  • Amazon has figured out how to combine the entrepreneurial culture of a small company with the financial resources of a large one.
  • Bezos has created a culture that’s hospitable to experimentation. He has been fanatical about letting teams operate independently of one another. This has made Amazon’s internal culture somewhat chaotic and balkanized but this chaotic culture is also hospitable to innovation.

Google, by contrast, tends to focus on the hard technical problems and worry about the business model later. They also train and provide every developer with a common and uniform set of tools and methods that everyone uses. These behaviors, the author claims, have a causal effect on the success of innovations far from the core.

It’s hard to argue with this analysis but something else jumps out when reading the article as illustrated by the following anecdote told by Eric Ries, the author of the Lean Startup.

“I know examples where a random Amazon engineer mentions ‘Hey I read about an idea in a blog post, we should do that.’ The next thing he knows, the engineer is being asked to pitch it to the executive committee. Jeff Bezos decides on the spot.”

This is typically the way things work at most companies that are run by a visionary founder – be it Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple or WalMart. The problem is that this approach is not sustainable. It’s good as long as the visionary is around and engaged. But the transformative innovation impetus rapidly dissipates once he or she is gone.

Visionary leadership is difficult to systematize and an innovation culture is a hard thing to maintain over time.

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