Amazon founder Jeff Bezos recently published his annual letter to shareholders, and it’s got some great advice for anyone who is striving to do great work.

After commending Amazon employees for their commitment to excellence, and Amazon customers for pushing Bezos and his team to continue raising the bar, Bezos delivered a lesson in how to stay ahead of customer expectations.

It all comes down to maintaining high standards, he writes.

And how do you do that?

“The four elements of high standards as we see it: they are teachable, they are domain specific, you must recognize them, and you must explicitly coach realistic scope.”

It took Amazon many successes–and billions of dollars of failures–to learn that lesson, says Bezos. “With those experiences as backdrop, I’d like to share with you the essentials of what we’ve learned (so far) about high standards inside an organization.”

So, here they are: the four elements of high standards, according to Jeff Bezos:

1. High standards are teachable.

“People are pretty good at learning high standards simply through exposure,” writes Bezos. “High standards are contagious. Bring a new person onto a high standards team, and they’ll quickly adapt. The opposite is also true. If low standards prevail, those too will quickly spread.”

The takeaway: It may be challenging to establish high standards in the beginning. It starts with hiring people who are open to learning and constructive criticism, and requires complete buy-in. But once those employees are used to working at a high level, it becomes self-sustaining.

2. High standards are domain specific.

“If you have high standards in one area, do you automatically have high standards elsewhere?” Bezos asks. “I believe high standards are domain specific, and that you have to learn high standards separately in every arena of interest.”

Bezos says when he founded Amazon, he had high standards for inventing, customer care, and hiring. But he didn’t have high standards on operational process: the actions needed to “keep fixed problems fixed” and “to eliminate defects at the root,” among other things.

“Understanding this point is important because it keeps you humble,” writes Bezos. “You can consider yourself a person of high standards in general and still have debilitating blind spots.”

The takeaway: Learn to recognize your strengths and weaknesses, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of others. Then, be humble and willing to learn from those who excel where you don’t.

3. High standards must be recognized.

How do you achieve high standards in a specific domain?

“First, you have to be able to recognize what good looks like in that domain,” answers Bezos.

Bezos goes on to speak about Amazon’s practice of starting meetings with silent reading of “narratively structured six-page memos,” which he describes as a kind of “study hall.” But not all of these memos are created equal.

“It would be extremely hard to write down the detailed requirements that make up a great memo,” states Bezos. “Nevertheless, I find that much of the time, readers react to great memos very similarly. They know it when they see it. The standard is there, and it is real, even if it’s not easily describable.”

The takeaway: You won’t always be able to quantify excellence, or even describe it in explicit terms. But if you identify and praise it when you see it, others will begin to recognize it, too.

And that motivates everyone to try harder.

4. High standards require realistic expectations.

Bezos says you must also have realistic expectations for the scope of a task or project: how much effort it takes to achieve a great result.

To illustrate, Bezos tells the story of a friend who recently decided to learn how to do a proper handstand. After her initial efforts left her frustrated, she decided to hire a coach to help her learn. The coach told her that most people think they can master a handstand in about two weeks of daily practice, but in reality, it takes about six months.

“Unrealistic beliefs on scope–often hidden and undiscussed–kill high standards,” concludes 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.”

“Often, when a memo isn’t great, it’s not the writer’s inability to recognize the high standard,” he says, “but instead a wrong expectation on scope: they mistakenly believe a high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more! They’re trying to perfect a handstand in just two weeks, and we’re not coaching them right. The great memos are written and re-written, 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.”

The takeaway: You can improve results simply by teaching scope. Make it clear exactly how much time and effort are needed to achieve a great result.

Why skill is overrated

It’s what Bezos says last that I found most interesting.

“How about skill?” he asks. “Surely to write a world class memo, you have to be an extremely skilled writer?… In my view, not so much, at least not for the individual in the context of teams. The football coach doesn’t need to be able to throw, and a film director doesn’t need to be able to act. But they both do need to recognize high standards for those things and teach realistic expectations on scope.”

In other words, Bezos says, someone on the team needs to have the necessary skill to perform a task (like writing a great memo), but it doesn’t have to be you. And this takes us back to point two: By learning to identify what individuals on your team do well, you can better delegate–giving you time to focus on your own strengths.

The result? A whole that is far greater than the sum of its parts.

Bezos credits Amazon’s high standards with its ability to build better products and services for customers, as well as to recruit and retain the best (since high performers are drawn to high standards).

But there’s another, more subtle (and intrinsic) benefit.

“A culture of high standards is protective of all the ‘invisible’ but crucial work that goes on in every company,” writes Bezos. “I’m talking about the work that no one sees. The work that gets done when no one is watching. In a high standards culture, doing that work well is its own reward–it’s part of what it means to be a professional. And finally, high standards are fun!”

So, remember, high standards:

  • Are teachable
  • Are domain-specific
  • Must be recognized
  • Must be clearly communicated (especially regarding scope)

Achieving this is well worth the effort. Because as Bezos concludes:

“Once you’ve tasted high standards, there’s no going back.”

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Image credit: Steve Jurvetson, via flickr