Tenets at Amazon

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Two critical characteristics of successful product-oriented teams are autonomy and bias for action. Teams should independently make decisions fast while maintaining alignment with the organization’s overall strategy. It’s easy for teams to get distracted by their daily challenges and lose sight of how to make decisions and tradeoffs. At Amazon, all teams use tenets as guardrails that help them stay true to their missions. Tenets give teams an anchor from which to evaluate decisions.

Tenets are a few carefully articulated principles for a product, a program, or a business unit. They guide teams, stakeholders, and senior leaders to align how a team operates and provides value. The mission says what; the tenets say how. Tenets communicate how a team approaches problems and deals with conflicting priorities. Having tenets at many levels (e.g., org, team, product) helps focus on the critical decisions specific to that level.

Tenet: a principle, belief, or doctrine generally held to be true; especially: one held in common by members of an organization, movement, or profession.

– Merriam-Webster

Why do we need tenets?

As an organization grows, more work occurs outside leaders’ direct line of sight. The number and complexity of decisions increase, as do the challenges of communicating and coordinating them across the organization. Tenets are crucial to capture teams’ decision-making process and help them decide how to make tradeoffs without the constant management overhead.

Often, when teams find a recurring question, something that occurs over and over again, we ask the teams to make decisions faster, more independent, and aligned with the overall strategy. But without tenets, teams might lack the context and guardrails to do so safely. Tenets help teams to remain aligned with their mission and move quickly as the organization scale.

Tenets should help teams to:

  • Drive alignment across team members, helping them stay connected to their most important objectives

  • Ensure high-quality, high-velocity decision making keeping the teams focused on the shared objective

  • Increase team autonomy make decisions by framing problems and empowering teams to use consistent criteria when making decisions

Teams should have five to seven tenets. At Amazon, all teams have tenets. A few examples:

Fulfillment by AmazonSellers are our customersFBA simplifies Sellers’ lives — whether they sell locally or globally
Information SecuritySecurity is measurableWe produce and communicate metrics on the effectiveness of our security programs
AWS Internet-of-ThingsNecessary offline operationsWe help customers build systems in the cloud that work in predictable ways when connectivity is limited
Standard WorkProblems are treasuresWe gladly surface problems because we are committed to resolving them

Best practices:
  • Focus on how the team conveys value to the customer: At least one should describe the principles of how the team provides value to the customer.

  • Guide individuals make hard choices and tradeoffs: Tenets declare that a team cares more about one thing than another, acting as a tiebreaker. E.g., “we value … over …”, “option 1, option 2, …., in that order”, “if we have to choose between A and B, we choose A”

  • Orient for the long term, but guide day-to-day decision-making: Tenets are durable and strategic. It may challenge or affirm traditional mindsets and guide individuals to work in strategic directions they might not otherwise pursue. Tenets survive multiple rounds of goal-setting, achievement, and failure.

  • Differentiate rather than elevate: Tenets grasp what makes the team different, not what makes it superior.

  • Evolve: Tenets are not written in stone. Teams are encouraged to improve their tenets, perfecting them over time.

  • Prioritize, order matters: Use numbers, not bullet points. The most crucial tenet first. Try to have seven or fewer tenets.

Common Pitfalls:
  • State the obvious: Do not codify principles that no one would argue against. Example: We perform QA.

  • Explain two ideas in one tenet: Each tenet should include only one central idea. A tenet that reads “X; Y” or “X and Y” means that idea cramming has occurred.

  • Reiterate the organization’s tenets: Don’t directly re-use tenets from the organization as the team’s tenets. If needed, customize the tenet to this specific team decision-making process.

  • Avoid wordiness: Strive for clear and concise writing.


Hear it directly from Llew Mason, VP of Supply Chain Optimization Technologies

Questions to consider?

  • Why does this team exist?
  • What value does it deliver to the customer?
  • What was/will be the most significant learning for you or the team
  • what principles or guidelines were/need to be in place?
  • What critical decisions need to be made where tenets help prioritize options or weigh tradeoffs?
  • What are current or aspirational characteristics of the team that others could emulate?

In conclusion

Writing tenets is only the first step. Tenets should be used as a compass for teams to make high-quality, high-velocity decisions. It is easy to ignore tenets during day-to-day implementation. Use mechanisms that keep tenets in front of the team, e.g., reference them from design docs to explain how a design supports your tenets or how you have used tenets to make design decisions.

If everyone on your team disappeared, a new team should be able to use the tenets to pick up where you left off.

Jeff Wilke, Former CEO of Amazon Consumer

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