May 25, 2017

Fending Off “Day 2” at Luther College

I’m a fan of Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, whether its because he “got it” and was the first customer of Net Perceptions or because of his fascination with space or just because I admire him as a leader. It doesn’t matter, I pay attention to what he has to say on a lot of things.

The building at Amazon where Jeff has his office is called Day 1, even when he moves to a new office he brings the name of the building with him. This is because he is always reminding himself to act like it is Day 1.

This morning I read his latest letter to the shareholders of Amazon in which he was asked what does Day 2 look like. Here is his short answer: “Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.”

In the letter he goes on to expand upon his ideas for how to fend off Day 2. I’ll give you his one sentence synopsis, and in the rest of this post I would like to share with you how I translate his ideas into the context of Luther College.

Here’s a starter pack of essentials for Day 1 defense: customer obsession, a skeptical view of proxies, the eager adoption of external trends, and high-velocity decision making.

Its not a surprise that customer obsession is number one on his list. The amazon mission statement is pretty simple: “Our vision is to be earth’s most customer-centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.” I am not a fan of viewing students as customers, but I think student success is a good substitute. So here is a lightly edited version of what Bezos had to say, plugging in student success where appropriate.

Obsess About Student Success

Staying in Day 1 requires you to experiment patiently, accept failures, plant seeds, protect saplings, and double down when you see student success. A student success obsessed culture best creates the conditions where all of that can happen.

That statement pretty well sums up the lens through which I view the discussion we have had on campus lately regarding program eliminations and reductions and how we evolve as a liberal arts college in the 21st century. We have to be bold and willing to try new programs at Luther. But we must equally be willing to accept that something we have tried did not work as well as we had hoped, and when that happens we should move our resources somewhere else. If we are student success focused then we can view moving on as a victory for the students rather than a defeat for a particular program of study. If we are student success focused then this frees us from endless debate about whether a particular subject is “central to the liberal arts.”

Its easy to view starting a new program as “planting a seed,” and as we heard over the past few weeks, when we do try a new program we must commit to making that program a success. As teachers and mentors I think we are always planting seeds in our students. Some of those seeds sprout quickly others need to be protected an nourished patiently over the course of three or four years. At the end of an emotionally draining faculty meeting Dean Krause gave us a great reminder that that we can and must challenge our best students as well as our weakest students.

Of course we could probably have a long discussion about what it means for our students to be successful. Some might define it in terms of outcomes, or jobs at the end of four years. Others might define it in terms of creating a “well rounded” person. For me, this translates into my classes in a different way. I have a pretty minimal syllabus with a set of goals and topics for the semester. How fast or how slow I go, how many of the topics I cover depends on the students in the course that semester.

Resist Proxies

As organizations get larger and more complex there is a tendency to manage to proxies. Bezos mentions two proxies in his letter than resonate strongly. Process and Surveys. Here is what Bezos has to say about process:

A common example is process as proxy. Good process serves you so you can serve customers. But if you’re not watchful, the process can become the thing. This can happen very easily in large organizations. 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. 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?

Bezos goes on to talk about a second dangerous proxy: market research and surveys. We cannot let surveys become proxies for our students, faculty, staff or alumni. Good teachers and administrators deeply understand their students and programs. They spend tremendous energy developing that intuition. They study and understand many anecdotes rather than only the averages you’ll find on surveys.

I’m not against beta testing or surveys. But you, the product or service owner, must understand the customer, have a vision, and love the offering.

The outside world can push you into Day 2 if you won’t or can’t embrace powerful trends quickly. If you fight them, you’re probably fighting the future. Embrace them and you have a tailwind.

These big trends are not that hard to spot (they get talked and written about a lot), but they can be strangely hard for large organizations to embrace.

What big trends are we fighting against right now? Here are a few I might suggest we think about, I’m sure others can add to this list.

  • The trend to develop alternative revenue sources?

  • The trend toward online learning?

  • A more diverse student population?

High Velocity Decision Making

Day 2 companies make high- quality decisions, but they make high-quality decisions slowly. To keep the energy and dynamism of Day 1, you have to somehow make high-quality, high-velocity decisions. Easy for start-ups and very challenging for large organizations.

First, never use a one-size-fits-all decision-making process. Many decisions are reversible, two-way doors. Those decisions can use a light-weight process. For those, so what if you’re wrong?

Second, most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re probably being slow. Plus, either way, you need to be good at quickly recognizing and correcting bad decisions. If you’re good at course correcting, being wrong may be less costly than you think, whereas being slow is going to be expensive for sure.

Third, use the phrase “disagree and commit.” This phrase will save a lot of time. If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, “Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?” By the time you’re at this point, no one can know the answer for sure, and you’ll probably get a quick yes. This isn’t one way. If you’re the boss, you should do this too.

Fourth, recognize true misalignment issues early and escalate them immediately. Sometimes teams have different objectives and fundamentally different views. They are not aligned. No amount of discussion, no number of meetings will resolve that deep misalignment. Without escalation, the default dispute resolution mechanism for this scenario is exhaustion. Whoever has more stamina carries the decision.

“You’ve worn me down” is an awful decision-making process. It’s slow and de-energizing. Go for quick escalation instead – it’s better.

I think we can learn from all of these examples. But I especially worry about the second and fourth with respect to our work in faculty governance.

Note: I originally wrote this post for Luther’s Ideas and Creations blog

If you are interested you can find the full text of Bezo’s letter here: This is the Jeff Bezos playbook for preventing Amazon’s demise - Recode