Bezos Touts Experiments, Willingness to Fail, Core Ideas

Amazon and Blue Origin rocket launch entrepreneur Jeff Bezos delivered a keynote and then took audience questions at AFA's Air, Space & Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Md., on Sept. 19. Staff photo by Mike Tsukamoto.

Amazon and Blue Origin rocket launch entrepreneur Jeff Bezos believes constant “real” experiments and commitment to core ideas, especially among top leaders, are the keys to innovation in any big organization.

In a conversation with Air Force Association president Larry Spencer at the concluding symposium of AFA’s 2018 Air, Space & Cyber Conference, Bezos said his companies are constantly making experiments, but they have to be “real.”

“You cannot invent without experimenting,” and it should happen constantly, Bezos said. “And the thing about experiments is, lots of them fail,” he continued. “If you know in advance that it will work, it is not an experiment,” he noted.

Watch Bezos’ keynote conversation with AFA President Retired Air Force Gen. Larry Spencer. Video by DOD.

“And what happens in big organizations is, we tend to confuse experimentation with operational excellence.” Simply doing a new iteration of something the organization already knows how to do well is “not an experiment,” he said. And if such activities ?fail, they’re real failures, he said.

Bezos also observed that experiments in and of themselves should be cheap. When they succeed and become a new enterprise, “that’s when they become expensive,” he said.

He noted that the few winning experiments “pay for” thousands of failed experiments.

Innovation also comes from seeking out “mavericks” with good and unusual ideas. But to be effective, these mavericks “can’t just be crazy. They have to be organized” so to put together solid proposals that can get “green lights” from management. Bezos also said innovation comes from providing the people in an organization with “multiple paths to ‘yes.’” Innovation is stifled by leaving people with nowhere to go if their first “no” is final.

Asked how he applies this strategy to business, Bezos said “you never want a fair fight.” That’s for “boxers in a ring,” he said. If the fight is fair “you didn’t prepare properly.”

Top leaders must know what the “big ideas” are for their business, Bezos said, and communicate them well to employees and make sure everything connects to those goals. For his Blue Origin launch services company, he said, the big ideas are “you have to be able to go to space more frequently, and with less lead time, and at a lower cost” than any competitor. Reliability is the key to success in the launch business, he said.

Bezos said it’s essential to find the happy medium between nimbleness and size or scale. Small makes for nimbleness, but if you are too small, you don’t necessarily have the flexibility to do what you need to do. The Air Force, he noted, is sometimes too small to do everything it needs to.

Finally, Bezos advised that decision making should be done by as few well-qualified people as possible; an individual or a small team “with good judgement,” who can balance “innovation with risk.”

Asked if he will be bringing Amazon’s new headquarters to the Washington, D.C., area, Bezos promised an announcement “by the end of the year.”