You were involved in the buildout of Amazon in Europe at a very interesting time — what were the defining challenges you faced in scaling that business as quickly as you did?

There was a very early lesson, which was, “Are you building things that will work at scale?” That question itself seems easy, but actually, it’s very hard to embed in the things you do every single day because most people — and I include myself in that category — focus on the task at hand. It’s hard to consider if this thing you’re building today will be relevant in 12 or 18 months.

That shift of mindset is I’m willing to spend more time on the things I’m building today because I know they’ll serve me for the next two or three years, as opposed to just getting this thing done but then having to revisit it in three, four, six months because it’s no longer fit for purpose.

Shift into that long-term thinking, when things are moving so quickly, but you’re still prepared to say, “I know today’s happening, but if I only focus on today, tomorrow probably won’t,” or, “Tomorrow will happen, but I’ll need five times as many people.”

Then you get into this ever-increasing headcount challenge, and strangely, the more people you add, the more challenges you face because everyone’s doing their own things. Then you get into different leadership challenges, trying to coordinate multiple people doing different things.

The challenge is being patient because you know, over time, that’s actually going to pay back — and very quickly. It’s a hard thing to do when you’re busy and somebody’s saying, “I need this today.”

So, that mindset came from the top? How is that driven into your behaviour?

The mindset coming from the top is build for scale. That doesn’t distract from the fact we’re all human. “I need this today.” “Well, you can have this today, but it’s going to be a bit of a hack,” or, “You can have it in a week or two weeks, but it’ll be fit for scale.”

You have that doubt. Sometimes, the right answer might be, “I need a hack, I need it today. I know it’s not the most efficient way of doing this, but we just need it.” There are always trade-offs. To believe it always happens one way and it’s always perfect — that would be a lie.

Mostly, you’re building towards a scale and occasionally, you’ll just need to get busy on something, as opposed to mostly being busy and occasionally trying to do something for scale.

Unfortunately, most organisations fall into the latter and are then surprised when three years down the line, they haven’t implemented this new system or made this change. It’s because you kept everybody busy on routine tasks and daily activities; you’ve not created that breakthrough. You’ve not created that time or that culture to create that breakthrough. That’s something Amazon did very well. But the onus is also on the individual. Everyone sits at their desk every day and says, “What am I doing? Is this what I want to be doing in 12 months?”

I often ask that question. Most goal setting is messed up. People will ask, “What are your goals for the next year?” If you ask somebody where you are today and project forward, their line of sight will give you their to-do list. If you flip the question and say, “12 months from now, what are you going to be proud that you’ve done? What have you achieved? You’ve given a year of your life to this job, and we’re a year further on. What have you changed? What’s different? What are you proud about? What are you telling your friends and family about? What are you celebrating?”

With that future-backwards approach, you get way more interesting things that people will talk about. Applying that in the way of work, it’s like, “Okay, I’ve got this job to do, cool,” but a year from now, when you don’t like doing this job, when you’re not doing it, what have you changed? “Well, I’ve done this and that.” “Great — so how are you going to get there?” And then work backwards.

It’s a more interesting approach, and it’s very nuanced, but it completely changes somebody’s mindset around thinking about their own achievements and what’s possible.

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