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Working backwards to achieve greater impact

Usually when we start a project, we start at the beginning and move forward, but here’s an interesting approach used by Amazon that turns that on its head. In this episode, we’re exploring the Working backwards approach. 

Imagine that enablers of change like us began their projects by writing down a vivid, farmer-centric outcome. This approach, known as Amazon’s “working backwards” method, involves drafting a mock press release. This one-page document acts as a compass, guiding the entire project by highlighting the anticipated benefits, unique aspects, and ultimate outcomes of the initiative. This is a great application of the “Begin with the end in mind” principle, as described by Covey (1991).

The second part to this approach is anticipating questions, concerns, and potential hurdles. A Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) document is developed, of five pages or less, which addresses queries that farmers and other stakeholders such as potential funders, might pose. This exercise sharpens our strategies, enabling us to foresee challenges and design comprehensive solutions before implementation begins. The resultant Press Release/FAQs (PR/FAQ) document should be no more than six pages in length. Amazon’s experience was that anything longer than that was less effective, as restricting the length of the document forced the authors to be better communicators and thinkers. 

The Press Release has a number of key elements. These are: 

  • a short, snappy heading; 
  • a subheading that describes the intended target audience and the key benefits; 
  • a summary paragraph that describes the product and the benefit; 
  • a problem paragraph that describes the problem that the product is designed to solve; 
  • a solution paragraph describing the product in detail and how it solves the audience’s problem; 
  • quotes from an organisational spokesperson or a hypothetical customer, and finally,
  • a getting started section that describes how easy it will be to get started. 

The FAQ section can be divided into external and internal audience questions, and address elements such as size of market, economics, dependencies, and feasibility. These questions help the author clarify their innovation and the potential challenges involved.

Instead of diving into organising our change projects, as extension practitioners we can kickstart our endeavours by writing a word picture of the change or outcome we’re seeking. Just as Amazon focuses on customer benefits in their press releases, we can highlight the tangible improvements farmers and other end-users will experience – be it increased yield, sustainable practices, or enhanced livelihoods. In our case, we might refer to this as an Impact statement, as it details the impact we’re hoping to achieve.

The secret to this approach is in adaptation and iteration. The PR/FAQ document will need to be revised several times to reflect new ideas and necessary changes. Embracing a continuous feedback loop empowers us to refine our strategies based on emerging challenges and opportunities, ensuring that we are relevant and can engage well with farmers.

Finally, effective communication is key to success. Launching innovative agricultural extension programs isn’t just about implementation; it’s about ensuring that the project team, farmers and stakeholders understand and embrace the changes. As Amazon effectively markets its products, we, as extension practitioners, must communicate the values and benefits of changes we’re promoting to foster acceptance and adoption.

We should briefly pause to highlight the difference between features and benefits. Features represent the distinctive attributes or specifications of a product or service, highlighting its technical aspects or functionalities. Benefits describe the positive outcomes or advantages that farmers or other end users gain from these features. This is essentially the “What’s in it for me” (WIFM) statement and highlights improvements or solutions offered. For instance, while a feature might describe the components of a new tool, the benefit would explain how it increases efficiency in farming, reduces physical strain, or leads to higher crop yield. Aligning features with corresponding benefits is crucial to communicate the practical value and impact of a product or initiative, allowing users to understand how specific features directly contribute to improving their lives or farming practices.

In summary, while the “working backwards” approach might initially seem unconventional in agricultural extension, its customer-centric principles are critical to our success. Using this type of approach to start our projects can help us be effective as we work with farmers and farming communities. If you’d like to delve deeper into this approach, we recommend you read the book (Bryar & Carr, 2021). 

One thing we were intrigued to learn was that when the PR/FAQ document is presented to executives within Amazon, PowerPoint presentations are banned! There is an expectation that the meeting opens with everyone reading the document. We’re guessing there’s a bit of an awkward silence while everyone does that! In 2018 Jeff Bezos banned PowerPoint presentations in his executive meetings. Instead, he said he wanted narrative-driven memos, “with real sentences, topic sentences, verbs, and nouns” and not just a list of brief bullet points. 

We’ve shared our insights, and now it’s your turn! Share your experiences about working backwards by leaving a comment below. Have you read the book? Your tips and additional ideas about it can enrich the conversation and help others. Let’s make this a two-way discussion—we value your thoughts and contributions!

Thank you for your interest in this Enablers of Change episode. Stay updated by subscribing to our newsletter for notifications about new episodes. If you enjoyed our content, spread the word and invite your friends to join the conversation!

Resources

Bryar, C., & Carr, B. (2021). Working backwards: insights, stories, and secrets from inside Amazon. Pan Macmillan.

Covey, S. R. (1991). The seven habits of highly effective people. Provo, UT: Covey Leadership Center.

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Warwick
Warwick
1 month ago

Hi Denice and John, on your recommendation I had a dig into the Working Backward approach a few months back. My main information source was a podcast featuring Bill Carr, which included some helpful practical examples as well as open discussion about some of the weaknesses. Some things that stuck with me included: Bill suggests that 90% of the product features introduced by Amazon were directly responding to customer feedback and ideas, only 10% were novel features developed by the design team. Amazon did a lot of “making existing ideas work better”. Organisations have seasons of change, and he could… Read more »

Denise Bewsell
Denise Bewsell
1 month ago
Reply to  Warwick

Thanks Warwick – that’s really useful!

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