The Work Backwards Mindset

May 11, 2021, 3:13 a.m.

Last month, Jeff Bezos stepped down as CEO of Amazon.com, the company that he founded and built up to become the massive corporation it is today which touches so many aspects of our lives.

People will remember him for his wealth and being one of the pioneers of the shift to eCommerce in the late 90s, and perhaps for his dramatic mid-life physical transformation:


But an often overlooked aspect of Bezos’ legacy is his influence on corporate culture.

Bezos famously developed the 14 leadership principles which form the basis of Amazon’s corporate culture. Unlike many companies where the company mission and values are just formality, these 14 principles are taken very seriously within the company and the leadership principles are cited non-ironically by managers and employees during product discussions, hiring, and performance reviews.

One of the more interesting sounding portions of these principles is found under the “Customer Obsession” principle:

“Leaders start with the customer and work backwards”

What does work backwards mean and what does it have to do with good customer service?

Straight Line vs. A Winding Road

For many of us, when we set a goal we start charting a path that makes sense to us. The steps that we plot for ourselves seem logical to us, but usually, it’s based on looking around at what others are doing or more commonly, branching out in random directions.

As an example of this, think about the steps you would take to study for a huge physics test coming up.

What’s your goal? That’s easy, get an A.

Ok, now how are you going to get there?

Hmmm, maybe skim the assigned chapters a bit, then highlight the portions I didn’t understand, then rewatch some of the lectures while copying down some definitions of words, then once I’m ready, do some practice problems.

This is working forwards (made-up phrase). You’re taking a winding road to get to your end destination, which is to get an A on your test.

If you were to work backwards from this goal, you might go through the following thought process:

Ok, I need to get an A on this Physics exam. The physics exam is going to be all problems involving calculations and it covers chapters 1-5 from the book, however only certain problem types were emphasized in class. I’m going to do all of the practice problems we were given in class first, identify the things I didn’t understand from that, watch examples from those / go to office hours to ask for help, then skim my notes if I have time at the end.

Notice the difference here -- by working backwards you are creating a straight line towards your goal instead of going in potentially random directions:


So maybe there's more to this phrase "working backwards" than just vague corporate-speak. We all have lofty goals that we want to achieve in our lives but the lack of time is the biggest obstacle. For whatever goals you set, try to see the direct path and avoid taking wrong turns, working backwards can help you get there.