A Complete Guide to Tenets
Tenets are a key tool for delegation and scaling decision-making. Learn how high-quality tenets can be written and used.
My general plan is to post my articles on Thursdays. Sometimes life interrupts, and I end up sending my article a day or two late. Today, I decided to try some reverse karma, and send my article a day early. My wife and I will be in Ireland for the next few weeks (leaving this afternoon), and I wanted to get the article out before we left. As a side note (once we're back), get ready for the next few months to feature Ireland photos.
Amazon is known for having a writing culture. 6-pagers, 1-pagers, and PR/FAQs are some examples. In every one of those documents, you are likely to find a section labeled Tenets.
I'm going to be walking through everything I can think of about tenets. This includes a number of my opinions of what makes a good (useful) and bad (not useful) tenet.
What are tenets?
a principle, belief, or doctrine generally held to be true - Merriam-Webster
Ok, so far, the dictionary hasn't helped us much.
Tenet - "Amazon should make money." - Dave
That tenet could meet the generic dictionary definition. Amazon leaders all believe that Amazon should make money. Therefore, it could be a tenet, right?
Yet, that isn't useful. It's something we all agree with. You probably understand that no one should write down tenets which are universally obvious because it would be a waste of space.
However, the definition of tenets also says that they are "generally held to be true." How can something be generally held to be true, but not be universally held?
The key is how tenets are used. They are used to guide decision-making, and resolve disagreements. Tenets are written specifically to help get past indecision and make progress on your goals.
There are two major ways they are used.
Make the right decision
Value decisions are often made by senior employees with a careful consideration (and understanding) of the fundamentals of our business.
A well run business drives decision-making to the lowest possible (cheapest) employee. This is how you move quickly.
How do you communicate to your engineers how to make complex decisions? You can't explicitly write down every possible decision. Instead, you boil possible decisions down to your core values (used to decide things), and then encode those values into your tenets.
If you have a critical disagreement, it can be expensive. Imagine I'm arguing with a peer. We argue for a while, and then escalate to our respective managers. Those managers disagree (unfortunately), and escalate to our co-SVP. That SVP thinks carefully, and makes a value-based decision. "We care more about X than Y, and therefore we should do Z."
That decision should stick. We would rather not end up re-arguing this in 6-months when we have some turnover. One way to ensure consistent decision-making is to encode our decision-making frameworks into tenets. That tenet would be, "We care more about X than Y."
By using tenets, you can quickly make the right decisions, avoid re-deciding, and this risk reduction ensures you can grant more autonomy to your employees.
A useful tenet.
When tenets are written well, they can be incredibly useful.
Tenet - "Sellers are our customers." - Amazon Retail Marketplace (circa a long time ago)
How was this tenet useful?
The Amazon Retail Marketplace is a way for Sellers (other businesses or individuals) to offer products for end customers.
The Amazon leadership principles (LPs) are guiding principles for how leaders should act and what they should value. They are a critical cultural component of working there. The Customer obsession LP indicates that we should always care deeply about customers and their experience.
A tricky thing is that we obsess over customers, and favor them in decision-making. As one small example, when customers call in when they're unpleased with a product, Amazon Customer Service often defaults to a full refund, regardless of Amazon policy. Their default behavior is to favor the customer.
We would run into situations where we had Sellers and Customers in conflict. Sellers are in a strange world of relying on Amazon for their business, but also being a part of the business relationship with end customers. Lacking this tenet, we would be driven to support Customers, at the detriment of Sellers.
After a couple of long debates on a contentious topic, we brought in the head of Marketplace. He listened to the arguments, and clearly stated that 'Customer obsession' applied to our Sellers as well. Sellers were our customers, and they needed to be treated as such.
This tenet was used dozens of times over the years for critical decisions. When in doubt of how to handle a situation, we were reminded by our tenet that Sellers were customers, and we needed to ensure we were obsessing over their experience.