Monday, November 18, 2013

We need kneepads

Leaders need to be visionary, to think ahead several steps and see the "big picture." But it's equally important to listen to those around you, to find when "the answer is in the room." No single person can think of everything; leaders need to recognize when others provide a stronger vision.

One example that embodies this is Jeff Bezos's anecdote about the origins of Amazon.com. In those early days, the then-startup company operated from a 2000 square foot basement warehouse space that had 6 foot ceilings. The small team of original employees did a little of everything; programmers helped pack books into boxes, for example.
In fact, we were packing on our hands and knees on a hard concrete floor. … We were packing these things, everybody in the company … and I had this brainstorm as I said to the person next to me, "This packing is killing me! My back hurts, this is killing my knees on this hard cement floor" and this person said, "Yeah, I know what you mean." And I said, "You know what we need?" my brilliant insight, "We need knee pads!'" I was very serious, and this person looked at me like I was the stupidest person they'd ever seen. I'm working for this person? This is great. "What we need is packing tables." … The next day we got packing tables and I think we doubled our productivity.

I first heard Bezos tell this story as he addressed a luncheon, broadcast on public radio. But Bezos has shared this story many times, including on the Academy of Achievement archive.

It's a great example of listening to suggestions, and remaining open to ideas that aren't your own. Bezos might have remained "married" to his idea of buying kneepads; rather, he realized packing tables (so simple!) was the better idea and went with that. And immediately doubled productivity. Listen for the answer in the room, and recognize the vision that best answers your needs.

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