The 10 Best Things That Explain Amazon’s Culture of Innovation

By Scott Kirsner |  December 16, 2020

2020 has been quite the year for Amazon. With a COVID-driven surge of online buying, the company has set new records for quarterly profits; Q3 profits were up 200 percent over the year before. And the Seattle-based company is hiring at a rate of 1,400 new employees every day.

A greenhouse inside Amazon’s Seattle headquarters complex.

What makes Amazon’s culture unique, and how does the company innovate across not just e-commerce, but cloud services, entertainment, and consumer electronics? 

Here’s a list of 10 things to read if you want to better understand what makes Amazon tick. (Thanks to Fiona Murray of MIT, Rita McGrath of Columbia Business School, and Karim Lakhani of Harvard Business School for their contributions to this list.)


Invent and Wander: The Collected Writings of Jeff Bezos. Learn about Amazon’s “Day 1” mindset, and why Bezos believes you can’t innovate if you’re not willing to fail. 

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon. The definitive Bezos biography from journalist Brad Stone, exploring Amazon’s scrappy origins, and Bezos’ expansion into devices, web services, and space exploration.

The Invincible Company: This book, a guide to the “world’s best business models,” includes several sections on Amazon. We recently published an excerpt: What Makes Amazon’s Approach to Innovation (and Failure) Unique. It discusses how Amazon creates a culture with the right enablers and behaviors to support experimentation — and the occasional failure. As Jeff Bezos likes to say, “Failure and invention are inseparable twins.”


Inside Amazon’s Artificial Intelligence Flywheel. “Amazon loves to use the word flywheel to describe how various parts of its massive business work as a single perpetual motion machine,” Steven Levy writes in Wired Magazine. “It now has a powerful AI flywheel, where machine-learning innovations in one part of the company fuel the efforts of other teams, who in turn can build products or offer services to affect other groups, or even the company at large. Offering its machine-learning platforms to outsiders as a paid service makes the effort itself profitable—and in certain cases scoops up yet more data to level up the technology even more.”

Is Amazon Unstoppable? “Amazon is special not because of any asset or technology but because of its culture—its Leadership Principles and internal habits,” writes Charles Duhigg in The New Yorker. “Bezos refers to the company’s management style as Day One Thinking: a willingness to treat every morning as if it were the first day of business, to constantly reexamine even the most closely held beliefs.” This piece explores the increasing amount of regulatory scrutiny focused on the company, as well as unionization activity at the company and the dissolution of Bezos’ marriage.

Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos

Jeff Bezos Banned PowerPoint in Meetings. His Replacement Is Brilliant. “Instead of reading bullet points on a PowerPoint slide, everyone sits silently for about 30 minutes to read a ‘six-page memo that’s narratively structured with real sentences, topic sentences, verbs, and nouns,'” Bezos explains. (Here’s the video mentioned in this piece.)

Five Truths About Amazon. We interview Jerry Gupta, a former Global Head of Program Management at Amazon, about what outsiders don’t understand about the culture. One of the truths: “Amazonians are hyper-aggressive,” he says. “They will go and talk to anyone up and down the hierarchy. They’re not afraid of that; they’re encouraged to do that.”

Customer Focus, Culture, and Decision-Making at Amazon and Google. In several videos from InnoLead’s annual Impact conference, Google and Amazon veteran Faisal Masud talks about his insights about the two tech giants.

How Amazon Innovates in Ways That Google and Apple Can’t. Insights from Eric Ries, entrepreneur and a key player in the lean startup movement, on why Amazon is more innovative than most companies of similar size. One key component of Amazon’s approach: experiments should start small and grow over time.