Keeping your choir at “Day 1”- tips from Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon

Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos regularly publishes a letter to shareholders. In his latest letter he talks about his company’s timeline as “Day 1” where “Day 2” represents “stasis, followed by irrelevance”. He then lists a “starter pack of essentials for Day 1 defense”, i.e. four things which can help keep a company at “Day 1”; all four points are relevant to the choir director.

  1. True Customer Obsession

With a choir director’s customers being both choir members and audience members, it is good to remember “Staying in Day 1 requires you to experiment patiently, accept failures, plant seeds, protect saplings and double down when you see customer delight.”

  1. Resist Proxies

“As companies get larger and more complex, there’s a tendency to manage to proxies. This comes in many shapes and sizes, and it’s dangerous, subtle, and very Day 2.

Another example: market research and customer surveys can become proxies for customers – something that’s especially dangerous when you’re inventing and designing products… Good inventors and designers deeply understand their customer. They spend tremendous energy developing that intuition. They study and understand many anecdotes rather than only the averages you’ll find on surveys. They live with the design… I’m not against beta testing or surveys. But you, the product or service owner, must understand the customer, have a vision, and love the offering. Then, beta testing and research can help you find your blind spots. A remarkable customer experience starts with heart, intuition, curiosity, play, guts, taste. You won’t find any of it in a survey.”

I like the small throwaway bit: “have a vision”. To me it all starts with a vision – a story you want to tell. Choosing your repertoire, e.g. can be done according to a recipe or a process. Or you can start with the story you want (need!) to tell and use that as the deciding factor in choosing the songs you are going to sing.

It might be worth one’s while to try and identify proxies in one’s choir environment.

  1. Embrace External Trends

“The outside world can push you into Day 2 if you won’t or can’t embrace powerful trends quickly. If you fight them, you’re probably fighting the future. Embrace them and you have a tailwind.

These big trends are not that hard to spot (they get talked and written about a lot), but they can be strangely hard for large organizations to embrace.”

There are many new trends in choral concerts – interesting staging, combining with theatrical elements, and on an on. Rejecting them out of hand is not necessarily the best decision. Copying them blindly is also not advised. (See point 1.)

  1. High-Velocity Decision Making

Day 2 companies make high-quality decisions, but they make high-quality decisions slowly. To keep the energy and dynamism of Day 1, you have to somehow make high-quality, high-velocity decisions.

The most important tip in improving the velocity of decision making is this: … use the phrase “disagree and commit.” This phrase will save a lot of time. If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, “Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?”

This isn’t one way. If you’re the boss, you should do this too. I disagree and commit all the time. We recently greenlit a particular Amazon Studios original. I told the team my view: debatable whether it would be interesting enough, complicated to produce, the business terms aren’t that good, and we have lots of other opportunities. They had a completely different opinion and wanted to go ahead. I wrote back right away with “I disagree and commit and hope it becomes the most watched thing we’ve ever made.” Consider how much slower this decision cycle would have been if the team had actually had to convince me rather than simply get my commitment.

According to Bezos, to disagree and commit does not mean thinking your team is wrong and missing the point, which will prevent you from offering true support. Rather, it is a “genuine disagreement of opinion, a candid expression of my view, a chance for the team to weigh my view, and a quick, sincere commitment to go their way.”

 “You’ve worn me down” is an awful decision-making process. It’s slow and de-energizing. Go for quick escalation instead – it’s better.

We have a large number of very gifted musicians in CTYC. Often times I have to justify my musical decisions and often times I’ve had to say “please humour me and do it this way”. I.e. “disagree and commit”. And many times I’ve had to change my (musical) decisions and ended up where those choir members wanted to to go in the first place.

As Bezos explains, it is however, a two-way street – there have been times when I would want to make a different musical (or organisational decision), but seeing someone feeling strongly about it, I committed to his/her choice. And it has never been a bad thing for the choir.

“It may be time to disagree and commit. Because when you go all in with people you trust, good things tend to happen.” – Justin Bariso

Read Jeff Bezo’s letter here.


Leon Starker