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Working Backwards: How To Build Innovative Products Like Amazon

Building great digital products and services is not an easy task. Innovation expert Richard Russell has set out to help any company doing so with his consultancy Working Backwards by applying a unique approach that has contributed to Amazon being so successful.
by: Torge Schwandt
photo: Working Backwards
featured: Richard Russell

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What is Working Backwards?

Working Backwards is the name of my consulting business that offers training, workshops and coaching for companies of any size that want to improve how they create innovative solutions and develop digital services and products.

The approach I use to help my clients is based on an identically named method that Amazon has been using for more than 25 years for every new product and feature developed. It has been written about in many books, but never shared in detail until now.

“Working Backwards” is a proven method for capturing, refining and communicating innovative ideas. At its core, it helps innovators improve ideas by working backwards from the customer need, helps managers select better ideas by viewing them from the customers’ eyes, and helps teams align on a shared vision for execution.

Even though it was originally developed at Amazon, it has been adapted for use at any company. It does not require any design, coding or presentation skills – only customer insights, an idea, and the ability to write.

“The ‘Working Backwards’ method puts the customer right in the center.”

How does the method work and how do you leverage it for your clients?

What I have observed over the years working in different organizations and with a variety of clients is that there often is some sort of “magical thinking” about innovation. Managers and employees at different levels want to be “innovative” but in many cases, they lack the right customer-centric thinking on top of having an organization that does not necessarily make it easy to collaborate efficiently with the customer being the #1 priority for everyone.

The “Working Backwards” method puts the customer right in the center. It starts with formulating what you actually would want to communicate about your new product or service in the future once it is shipped. Innovators need to be able to write an idea down so that anyone can understand what it means from a customer perspective – and then you work backwards from there to turn it into reality.

After all, the method enables companies to align their ideas with actual customer needs, create a realistic go-to-market plan, test with real customers before creating an MVP, gain buy-in from management, and align cross-functional teams for execution.

I have adapted it for use in different types of organizations, and find it especially valuable in larger ones with lower risk tolerance and where gaining alignment between different teams can be difficult. My goal is to leverage the method for my clients’ success by helping them to create customer-obsessed innovation cultures and generating new revenue streams while managing cost and risk.

“The consistent theme of my career has not been technology – but customers.”

What is your personal background story?

Up until now, I have spent most of my career in senior management and product positions at large companies like Amazon, Google, and Deutsche Bank as well as various startups, always trying to understand how innovation works.

While I have always been working in “digital”, the consistent theme of my career has not been technology – but customers. Customers are what business is all about. I started this journey when my former manager at Deutsche Bank asked me how Google innovates. Back then, I did not have a good answer to this, but it drove me to study first-hand how innovation works in some of the most innovative companies and how those lessons can be applied to other companies.

I moved to Luxembourg at the end of 2014 to join Amazon in a product development role. This is how I discovered the “Working Backwards” method. Leveraging the method in combination with “Lean Startup” principles and agile methodologies is what I do now, working as a startup coach and as a consultant with brands like Luxair, IKEA/Ikano, POST Luxembourg, Vodafone and more.

In this regard, I also support different initiatives like The Relentless Network (for Amazon Alumni) and ProductTank (for Product Managers) that try to promote a more customer-centric business mindset and community in Luxembourg that is all about great products. I also co-founded the Australia New Zealand Chamber of Commerce Luxembourg to help connect Luxembourg with my home country and neighbour.

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