How to Deliver Exceptional Results: Work Backwards

Note: This was originally published on October 25, 2010.

Amazon develops products and service offerings that are focused on meeting needs of their customers. They do this by taking a backwards approach to product development that starts with a mock-up of a press release announcing the product’s benefits. In this way, stakeholders (and potential clients) know what to expect from the eventual product. The expected results drive the product development process. If the press release does not resonate with stakeholders and potential clients, the product is not going to meet their needs. By applying this principle to consulting, specifically to the proposal process, the chance of success for a consulting engagement is greatly increased.


I recently came across an interesting topic on the (new to me) site, Quora. Quora describes itself as follows:

Quora is a continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it. The most important thing is to have each question page become the best possible resource for someone who wants to know about the question.

The particular question that I stumbled across was, “What is Amazon’s approach to product development and product management?” Several people chimed in with answers, including some high ranking Amazon employees. After visiting Amazon CTO, Werner Vogel’s blog post on the subject, I must admit that I was intrigued. Amazon approaches product development/management by working backwards:

  1. Start by writing the Press Release. Nail it. The press release describes in a simple way what the product does and why it exists – what are the features and benefits. It needs to be very clear and to the point. Writing a press release up front clarifies how the world will see the product – not just how we think about it internally.
  2. Write a Frequently Asked Questions document. Here’s where we add meat to the skeleton provided by the press release. It includes questions that came up when we wrote the press release. You would include questions that other folks asked when you shared the press release and you include questions that define what the product is good for. You put yourself in the shoes of someone using the product and consider all the questions you would have.
  3. Define the customer experience. Describe in precise detail the customer experience for the different things a customer might do with the product. For products with a user interface, we would build mock ups of each screen that the customer uses. For web services, we write use cases, including code snippets, which describe ways you can imagine people using the product. The goal here is to tell stories of how a customer is solving their problems using the product.
  4. Write the User Manual. The user manual is what a customer will use to really find out about what the product is and how they will use it. The user manual typically has three sections, concepts, how-to, and reference, which between them tell the customer everything they need to know to use the product. For products with more than one kind of user, we write more than one user manual.

The above list of steps is not something thrown together by some PR folks. These are part of Amazon’s core values, the first of which is “Customer Obsession: We start with the customer and work backwards.” As Vogel explains, the goal of the product development cycle “is to drive simplicity through a continuous, explicit customer focus.”

At eHelp, a company I worked for that was acquired by Macromedia and thus acquired by Adobe, I managed direct marketing campaigns in conjunction with the managers of the firm’s products. Marketing, Sales and Customer Service were the end of the line for the product development cycle. We were physically separated from the development team. Interestingly, the developers were the only group at the company that I had little involvement with – I regularly interfaced with people at all levels of the company in every department except R&D. Once a product was ready to ship, then the product manager had to come up with a concept for positioning the product. There were two significant problems that I observed first hand:

  1. The marketing team did not have any appreciable direct knowledge or experience with the product. My favorite colleague in the marketing department, and my mentor, had previously worked for a company that developed ASICs (Application-specific integrated circuits). She was perfect for the job at eHelp because our products were just as difficult to define and understand as ASICs. How does one market a product they can’t even understand from a user’s perspective?
  2. Because the end-user perspective was so far removed from the research and development processes/teams, products did not always provide a clear solution to a commonly defined need. I’m not negating the power of Long Tail marketing, but products were greenlighted for development by programmers, not customers or anyone representing customers. (The CEO/founder of the firm was a genius programmer that insulated the development team from the rest of the company.) One problem that often arose was that the products sometimes had overlapping features, but suffered from poor interoperability.

What’s the Point?

I see many consultants that take this same approach – developing solutions in a vacuum. Like power, with great technical ability, comes the need for great restraint. If the ideal consulting engagement entails true collaboration between client and consultant, developing solutions that are not mindful of the client’s needs is a recipe for discord, if not failure.

Here is an example contrasting the approach of Amazon with that of non-customer-centric cultures, applied to a growing consulting field – green consulting. Sustainability consulting, energy efficiency consulting, etc., is a branch of consulting that seeks to assist clients in improving efficiency, decreasing use of non-sustainable resources/practices and other similar concepts.

Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

Consultants in this field that take the traditional route, putting the cart before the horse, so to speak, often come off sounding somewhat preachy. It is as if sustainability for its own sake is all that matters, and the sooner a potential client accepts that, the better. But what about the client? They wouldn’t likely be entertaining hiring a green consultant if they didn’t see some importance in it. Passion for one’s career is great, but to be successful that passion should not take away from providing tangible results that the client is able to see. Brow-beating isn’t a recommended business development tactic. It also doesn’t work forcibly adapting a previously used (or gasp – trademarked) approach to the situation at hand. To me, that is like some of the jazz musicians I used to work with that spent their practice time memorizing transcribed solos of great musicians like Charlie Parker. These guys would analyze to death the notes he played on a certain tune in context of the chord changes. When it came time for them to play a solo, they just regurgitated a bunch of licks. What they lost sight of was the fact that Bird was a true improviser and probably couldn’t have played the same solo twice. (As high as he was most of the time, he probably wouldn’t have been able to execute it.) Consulting is like jazz music in that regard – you apply your experience and skill to a given situation based on your knowledge of what is required in that precise moment.

In the Amazon approach, it is the end result that matters. For a consulting engagement, this means having a good understanding of the clients needs. This comes from dialog, conversation. By understanding what the client needs, you focus on results that lead to a conceptual agreement. With the expected outcome established, the problem can be defined. As the problem is understood, a solution can be developed. Based on the consultant’s experience, the specific services required to solve the problem are relatively clear. This moves the proposal process forward, and because the process involves several small “yeses”, the chance of the proposal being accepted is much higher. The focus has shifted for the client from “how much is this going to cost me” to “how will this address my needs.” Back to the example of a green consultant, the proposal process would focus first on the expected outcome. For instance, a potential client might be concerned with their company image and hoping to be perceived by their customers as being environmentally responsible. The green consultant might start with emphasizing that in today’s business world, image cannot be simply a veneer. The end result should be that the client is perceived as truly dedicated towards making the world around them better. The consultant can also show that this need not be an overnight top-to-bottom revamp of the entire company, but an ongoing process of incremental improvements. The consultant may suggest some tried and true methods of solving the problem, but only those which apply directly to the desired outcome.

To sum it all up – to be truly focused on your client’s needs, try working backwards. Understand what it is that the client really needs and suggest solutions that meet those needs. If your consulting approach is dependent upon standardized rote service offerings regardless of the situation, you risk becoming a commodity. Plumbers make good money in comparison to some other jobs that don’t require a degree. Most services that plumbers offer are fairly standard and are predictable enough to warrant a commodity-based pricing model. Yet most plumber will say that every day is different and each job offers its own set of challenges. In my humble opinion, consulting is an art, not a trade.