Everyone wants to do great work, but not many understand what it takes to do great work. It’s just one reason why, while good ideas are a dime a dozen, people and companies that can execute on good ideas are few and far between.
Amazon is one of those companies: Over the decades, the “Everything Store” has built a great track record of being able to execute on great ideas.
One reason why:
Bezos has taught employees to “define the scope.”
In project management terms, “scope” is used to describe the details of what’s involved in a job, along with the amount of time and effort it takes to complete it.
Whether working on a complex project or even a small set of tasks, it’s extremely important to define the scope.
Doing so, as Bezos explained in a past letter to shareholders, requires first recognizing what a “good” result looks like. Then, you must understand and have realistic expectations for how much work it will take to achieve that result.
This is important because many jobs are harder, more involved, or take more time to complete than most people imagine.
To illustrate, Bezos relates the story of a friend who learned how to do a proper handstand. She ended up hiring a coach, who told her most people think they can master a handstand in about two weeks, when in reality it takes about six months.
“Unrealistic beliefs on scope–often hidden and undiscussed–kill high standards,” says Bezos. “To achieve high standards yourself or as part of a team, you need to form and proactively communicate realistic beliefs about how hard something is going to be.”
Bezos then provides an example of how this works at Amazon.
When it comes to presenting new ideas, Amazon employees don’t use PowerPoint. Instead, they write narratively structured memos, which can reach as many as six pages.
“Not surprisingly, the quality of these memos varies widely,” writes Bezos. “Some have the clarity of angels singing. They are brilliant and thoughtful and set up the meeting for high-quality discussion. Sometimes they come in at the other end of the spectrum.”
When a memo isn’t great, says Bezos, it’s not usually the writer’s inability to recognize the high standard. Rather, it’s a wrong expectation on scope: The writer believes they can write a well-crafted memo in one or two days, or even a few hours.
In reality, says Bezos, it takes a week or more.
“They’re trying to perfect a handstand in just two weeks,” Bezos says. “The great memos are written and rewritten, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind. They simply can’t be done in a day or two.”
He continues: “The key point here is that you can improve results through the simple act of teaching scope–that a great memo probably should take a week or more.”
There are other reasons it’s important to define the scope of a job:
The novelty of working on something new fades pretty quickly. So many have started on the path of success, only to give up before reaping what they sow–because they simply don’t understand what’s necessary to achieve the result they’re hoping for.
By defining the scope, you can help give yourself the motivation you need to keep going–because you can easily track what you’ve done, and see how far you have to go.
Every company and every project has a set of unwritten tasks that everyone assumes will just get done, even if no one knows who’s going to do them.
Guess what? Those tasks usually don’t get done.
Defining the scope helps make those tasks clear, so that someone makes sure they’re completed.
As Bezos explains, many jobs are harder, more involved, or take more time to complete than most people imagine.
It’s more likely that a team actually achieves great results if everyone involved understands just how much time and effort are needed.
“Scope creep” is another project management term that describes how a job’s requirements tend to increase over time.
For example, if you’re responsible for building a new product, you know how quickly the list of requested features for that new product can grow.
Of course, you can add those features to the list, but if it’s out of the originally defined scope for the product, it’s going to cost: It will either take more time or raise the budget of the project.
Defining the scope helps those in charge keep from getting bogged down by additional requests, and keep moving forward.
It’s so easy to take on too much, thinking there’s a way to fit everything in. You think that time will magically appear or that a job will somehow get done by itself …
So either the job doesn’t get done …
Or it doesn’t get done the way it should …
Or it gets done, but at too great a cost to yourself or others.
In contrast, when you properly define scope, you reduce stress and help life go more smoothly.
So, the next time you find yourself frustrated with the way a job is going, take a step back–and take a page out of Jeff Bezos’s playbook:
Define the scope.
Because while it’s not as easy as it looks, it’s definitely achievable.
You just need to know where you’re going–and what you’re getting yourself into.