Amazon’s Two-Way Doors

In Amazon’s 2015 Letter to Shareholders, Jeff Bezos discussed one of the primary pitfalls of large organizations: one-size-fits-all decision making. In order to avoid this trap, his answer was to approach problems as if they were one-way or two-way doors.

When an organization is faced with a major decision that there’s no turning back from, that’s a one-way door. These decisions require careful thought and analysis because once you pass through them, you can’t go back. If an option exists to reverse course, unwind, or even pivot, that’s a two-way door. These decisions still require careful thought and analysis, but also have an element of “if we’re wrong, then we’ll _____.”

The bigger an organization gets, typically the more one-way doors they install. The logic is that hard rules will improve decision making by giving explicit clarity. We’ve all encountered the worst versions of this bureaucratic mindset (insert your own DMV joke here). Despite the expectation of streamlining and simplifying, as Bezos says, they create, “slowness, unthoughtful risk aversion, failure to experiment sufficiently, and consequently diminished invention.”

With our own businesses and relationships, we should remember the one-way vs. two-way framework. By keeping our minds open to maintaining more two-way doors, we can benefit from the optionality that “tinkering” introduces. While this may introduce a greater number of small failures, we have to realize (like Bezos did) that those failures are a relatively small cost in exchange for the optionality of the larger successes that may emerge.

We never know where our next great insight will come from. When we put two-way doors in place and make sure everyone knows they are there, we open ourselves up to more constructive feedback, greater feelings of ownership through the added freedom to experiment, and more innovation in how we communicate and execute at our jobs.

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