Amazon's Jeff Bezos just explained a key business lesson about the dangers of following process

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos released his annual letter to shareholders on Wednesday, a must-read missive filled with pearls of management philosophy and leadership lessons from the guy who created a $US430 billion juggernaut.

Bezos is particularly focused on how to prevent a successful company from becoming a lumbering and complacent organisation that eventually succumbs to “stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death.”

One of the main ways Bezos believes a company can avoid this fate is by making a concerted effort to never become a slave to established processes, no matter how entrenched in company culture.

“This can happen very easily in large organisations. The process becomes the proxy for the result you want. You stop looking at outcomes and just make sure you’re doing the process right. Gulp,” Bezos writes. 

“It’s not that rare to hear a junior leader defend a bad outcome with something like, ‘Well, we followed the process.’ A more experienced leader will use it as an opportunity to investigate and improve the process. The process is not the thing. It’s always worth asking, do we own the process or does the process own us?” he continues.

ATTN: United CEO

This lesson is especially timely in the wake of the now-infamous incident in which United airlines forcibly removed a paying passenger from one of its aeroplanes, bloodying him in the process.

United took a long time to actually apologise for the incident and the way it treated one of its customers. Instead, it tried to justify its actions, insisting that removing the passenger was within its rights and necessary (because the flight was overbooked and the company needed the passenger’s seat for a United staffer en route to another flight). 

United CEO Oscar Munoz even told the company’s staff in an internal memo that “our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this.” 

The entire world was aghast that United could treat a passenger in such a manner. But United was completely blind to this. From its perspective, it followed the process. The fact that the outcome was so damaging to the passenger, and to United’s public image, was only understood by the company’s management far too late.

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