Transformation & Change108

Customer Obsessed Strategy Execution at the World's Biggest Startup

Yes, and it starts with Agile Leaders!

Customer Obsessed Strategy Execution at the World's Biggest Startup

June 15, 2023


Years of double-digit growth at Amazon Web Services, the world’s largest cloud service provider, have come from embodying leadership principles like Customer Obsession, Frugality, and Delivering Results. In the Federal, Nonprofit, and Healthcare business, we wanted to take it to the next level by establishing a strategy organization dedicated to customer and industry transformation. Learn from one of its strategy leaders the lessons learned of driving agile strategies at a breakneck pace into a multi-billion dollar business.


Customer Obsessed Strategy Execution at the World's Biggest Startup (PDF)



About the Speaker(s)

Awais Sheikh,
Head of Planning & Execution Management,

Awais Sheikh is a strategic advisor that has shaped modernization efforts for large scale public, private, and nonprofit organizations, including numerous civilian and military Federal agencies, through establishing trusted relationships with senior leaders, and leading diverse teams to execute transformation efforts.

​Awais currently serves as the Head of Planning and Execution Management focusing on strategic growth for the largest Public Sector sales organization for Amazon Web Services. Previously, he served as the Capability Development Lead for MITRE’s Business Innovation Capability, MITRE’s approach to delivering approaches such as design thinking and lean startup to the company and Federal agencies. Mr. Sheikh also has experience in business process management and agile strategy and coaching.

He is a published expert in the areas of business innovation and design thinking and the winner of the Eugene M. DeLoatch Legacy Award winner at the 2019 BEYA STEM Conference for his career and nonprofit accomplishments.


Video Transcript


"I want to grab a coffee at Bilgewater."

That's a phrase I never thought I would be saying when I woke up this morning.

Yes, my name is Awais Sheikh.

That's Awais with an S at the end. Sheikh as is in milk. I've had a lifetime of explaining that.

Apparently, Laura, I thought there was going to be a prize for most jargon-filled title, I was hoping I was going to get a lapel or something, but apparently not.

But I hope by the end of this you will understand all the words inside here and what it means in a little bit of our unique, peculiar Amazonian lexicon.

First, a little bit about me. I actually lead a team of strategy and execution professionals, focus on the public sector, federal, nonprofit, and healthcare. I've been doing public sector consulting for almost 20 years now. I love it. So much about yesterday and today was purpose driven. I love this idea of helping solve problems in terms of how do we help deliver disaster relief to people who are affected, how do we help deliver benefits to people that need it, how do we help secure our homeland? All these amazing missions. It was probably more than 20 years ago I was introduced to Ahmed and he took me on this magic school bus ride of learning about agile and just so much I think Laura said it yesterday, that it's about a different way of working. Now I love that.

Then the derivatives of agile in terms of design thinking and Lean Startup, and different ways that we could help government agencies and nonprofits and healthcare institutions deliver their amazing missions. Also because, again, we're talking about humans. A little bit about me. I'm a husband, father of two. You want to talk about flexibility, resilience, freedom. Golf is something I try to play, and all of those things apply there as well. I love applying this stuff, not just in the workplace, but also as a volunteer of a nonprofit, of a school as well.

Yes, I worked for this small company called Amazon.

True story. For about two days, I became the most popular parent in our household. My wife, who's a physician, saves lives, and I do consulting, whatever the heck that is. Or coaching. But when I say, "Oh, you work for Amazon, you're going to help deliver our toys, Dad?" After two days, I'm like, "No, not quite. I work for a part of Amazon called Amazon Web Services." One of these startups that came about a little over a decade ago within Amazon.

I'm sure most people here know what cloud computing is. If you don't, the simplest way of explaining it is this idea of rather than companies and organizations spending thousands and millions and hundreds of millions of dollars owning their own IT equipment, what if we could treat our IT like our utilities, and we could pay for what we need, scale up, scale down as needed. It's really taken off in the public sector. We support thousands of organizations around the world. Of course, my focus is here within the US federal, nonprofit, and healthcare. Here's the funny thing about this, is that when we talk to public sector customers, The value proposition of cloud is we can reduce costs, and we can improve our reliability and security. But in the context of this conference, a lot of folks are buying agility.

They're buying this ability of saying, "You know what? I think there is a new way that we could deliver a better experience for taxpayers through technology."

Mohammed, who was here yesterday, was talking about how technology and business are no longer separate things. What they're saying is, "Hey, maybe I could stand something up and try it out. If it works, I can scale it really big and really fast. If it doesn't, all right, I'll wipe that out and try the next experiment." It's really fascinating supporting the public sector with this technology.

I joined in 2020. I was also joining during the pandemic. It took me less than eight months to make a friend, but we cheated and got together in the office a couple of times just to meet with some folks safely. But I was employee number 2 for this strategy function.

My first question was, "You make billions of dollars. You don't have a strategy function. What do you mean?" Really, when we said, "Why do we even need one of these?" Bunch of bullets, bunch of words. But really, the idea behind it was, we have customers that are operating in these VUCA environments. They're increasingly worried about technology, but they don't have the understanding of how to deliver that. What they're really looking for is not for someone like AWS to come and tell them about our 200-plus services, our different Lego blocks. They want to understand outcomes.

I have an outcome to help defend against bad guys. I have an outcome to deliver better patient outcomes. I have outcomes in terms of how to deliver benefits in a more timely basis. I need someone that understands that terminology, understands that, and can work backwards from that. My best way of explaining this, I am the least handy person in my household, including my wife and kids. When I go to Home Depot and I say, "Hey, I want to buy a shed," and the people at Home Depot tell me, "Yeah, you get the lumber on aisle two, you get the tools on aisle 14, you get the screws on aisle two." I'm like, "Oh, I'm sorry. My bad. Let me re-explain. Where is the tool shed aisle where I can go and buy the prefab made tool shed and preferably have someone put it on a truck and deliver it." Or better yet, where can I talk to where someone's going to ask me a question and say, "What are you trying to get a tool shed for?" "Oh, I have a lawn mower, I have a leaf blower. I'm trying to store it." "Oh, have you thought about your garage?" Okay, now we're having a different conversation. That's what we're really trying to do with our strategy function, the public sector.

Lilia yesterday was talking about mountain climbing. I loved it. We also thought about mountain climbing, so we called our team APEX, Analysis, Planning, and Execution. Really, we came up with a bunch of services. That said, we want to develop strategies that really work on mission outcomes. One of the Amazonian terms we use is mechanisms. It's not just an objective, it's not just a strategy, but a strategy is an intention. But what are the things that we're actually going to put in place to be able to deliver to that intention? I know we talked a lot about methodologies and processes. We don't use those words. But a mechanism is something where we're really stubborn on the vision of what we're trying to achieve. But we're super flexible on how we get there.

We tried things. We're trying things like growth innovation programs. I'll talk about a few of those. We're talking about different ways of energizing this growth flywheel. What's that journey been like? In order for me to really talk about what that journey is like, I have to introduce you to these leadership principles, if you haven't talked about them. Here is the secret. When we talk about the world's biggest startup, Amazon started as an online bookstore. Then it became selling cloud services and we have Whole Foods and we're building satellites. You might wonder what brings that all together? One of the things I have on my lanyard there is engage culture. That is really the secret sauce. It's these 12 leadership principles.

True story.

I was touring a fulfillment center where they're actually like, they're the ones that are boxing and packing and shipping all those things, the myriad of boxes that I have inside my garage. The supervisor of that fulfillment center is referencing these same leadership principles that I'm using with respect to my strategy team, delivering cloud capabilities for the public sector, that's powerful. These aren't just like cat posters or things that we put up. Our hiring is based off of them. Our performance management is based off of them. Every decision that we make, every document, there are very strong conversations. By the way, these aren't meant to be harmonious with each other. There's tension between them. Those are the conversations that we have. Which one at this moment, is bias for action the most important, or is it about thinking bigger? This is really the center point of and the result a distillation of a bunch of debates that have happened over the course of time within different parts of the company.

I want to talk about our journey in terms of standing up a strategy function in context of some of these leadership principles.

The first one is customer obsession. We talked about responsive customer-centricity. We take it even further. We talk about customer obsession. It's not lost on me that in a context outside of Amazon, obsession usually isn't associated with very positive things. But we talk about being customer obsessed. Our customers are wonderfully dissatisfied with the services and with the experiences that they have. That provides opportunity for us to understand that, work backwards from that, and to come up with the right solutions and services. Here's the thing. In a strategy context, though, especially in the public sector, this idea of who is our customer and how do we work backwards can get really confusing. When we're thinking about who is the customer for taxpayer experience? Who is the customer when it comes to Homeland Security and Defense? It's not just not one person, oftentimes, it's not one agency, it's not one nonprofit. It's a bunch of different entities. We still want to be customer-centric, though. We don't want strategy to be this big, amorphous, abstract thing. Again, we talk about thousands of hows or thousands of ways of doing it. We said, "Let's explore our toolbox" and say, "What are some of the ways that we can make customer-centric strategies?"

Some of the things that we've tried out, this is purposely grayed out, so you don't try to read it. Then we also have customer-specific stuff. But how many people have heard of or used a value map? Value map, very simple construct where we said, "You know what? For these mission areas, for these customer sets, what are the outcomes that you're really trying to achieve?" We don't do this ourselves. We sit down with our customers and say, "Hey, are you trying to prioritize delivering a better experience, more timely delivery? Are you trying to prevent fraud, waste, abuse? What are the things that you're trying to do?" That's a language they understand. Now we start having a joint conversation. What are the capabilities that you need in order to be able to do that? Then we talk about the Legos, then we talk about the 200-plus services in terms of how we can put that in context to be able to deliver. How many people have used a business model canvas or mission model canvas? A lot more hands. A business model canvas, mission model canvas is our way. We talk about designing for a user using a persona The way we use a mission model canvas or business model canvas is almost like a persona for a mission or a persona for an organization. That if we can really empathize. It's weird to be talking about empathizing with an organization, or empathizing with the mission. But if we can understand who are the beneficiaries of that mission? What are the value proposition? What's the partners that we need to deliver? How do all those people make money? Where are the costs associated with that? We can really get in and now we bring our brilliant minds and say, "Wait a minute, there's a better way of doing that. I've delivered that for this other commercial company. Here's a way that we can bring that to bear." These are just some of the hows in terms of how do we try to drive customer-centricity and customer obsession in development of our strategies. We try to do these things well before we ever write a word.

I love this one. Invent and simplify. There's a lot of invention that goes on, sometimes not so much simplification. We're always finding ways of simplifying. We understand that we're going to be misunderstood for long periods of time. That's okay. We put some goodness into the world and we're patient and we bob and weave and figure out how we're going to deliver. On the left-hand side, this time it's blurred because I'm a little bit embarrassed about it. The left-hand side was when I first joined, this was our strategy process. It was very, like work breakdown structury. It was step 1, step 1.1, 1.2. Then, like, the timeline, who's the owner? It's like you get to step 1.A, and it's already obsolete. We're like, "This isn't a way that we're going to be able to build a strategy." This isn't agile in terms of how we're doing it, and now this is how we're doing it. We're building a cadence. We're trying to think about, "All right, how do we think about strategy in terms of an overall organization? Our federal, nonprofit, and healthcare, how do we use that to drive down decisions on investments?" Rather than saying, "We're going to have headcount and we're just going to dole that out," what if we said, "Hey, what are the bets that we want to make based off of our strategy? How do we allocate certain amounts of headcount for those experiments? If they work, let's double down on it. If not, if we're not meeting those triggers, let's figure out how do we reprioritize, how do we do strategy down at each individual business unit, what we call verticals? How do we understand what we're learning and feed that back up into the overall strategy?"

Now it's not just, "Hey, I'm going to sit and do a one-time three-year strategy or five-year strategy and then I'm just going to wait until the next year." But it's a constantly rolling process that we're doing to say, "We're going to do strategy at this level, at the customer level, and we're going to have that interplay across that." Bias for action.

Here's the other thing that strategists are often criticized for is that, "Yeah, you guys go off, you'll take six months to do some ideating and then you'll write a document and then you'll present it out and roll it out and change management and all that." Well look, the world that we operate in, we can't afford to do that. We need to have a biased reaction. We're not going to have all the answers. How do we think about pushing down risk through this concept of two-way doors?

We talk a lot about two-way doors. Is it a two-way door? A one-way door is a decision that you make that's really hard for you to reverse back from. A two-way door is an experiment. It's something that you try. If it works, you keep going. If it doesn't, you roll back. We realize that we need to think about strategy as a series of two-way doors, rather than one-way doors that we're going to have to go through.

First, when we used to do strategy, I think our first strategy would take three months or four months or that type of thing. We said, "Wait a minute, that's much too long. How do we shorten the cycle time of learning?" We started thinking about strategy more as far as what are the problems that we're trying to solve? What are the problems that we're hearing from our customers? What are the problems that we're observing from our conversations with mission partners? Now how do we identify what's the problem? Define that, conduct some analysis to say, "What do we think our hypotheses are for? What's going to deliver?" Then let's test that with one customer, let's test that with two or five customers and let's see what we learn from that and then let's redefine the problem and let's go through that very, very quickly. Then once we figure out what's going to work, then we can do all that hard work in terms of scaling it. Then we can ask for the resources, then we can figure out what we need to do in order to scale it, to make it really, really big and to scale it out.

Shortening the cycle time of learning has been kind of a mantra for us from a strategy perspective. It's not just about sometimes we think strategy is like, "Hey, the right answer is out there. If I just study it hard enough, if I just do enough analysis, if I just get, I'm going to find that right answer." But we heard yesterday, organizations and especially missions are complex adaptive systems. It's more about that learning process. Then how do we do it with our customers? It's not just something... We don't do strategy to our customers. We want to do it with them. How do we bring them into this process? How do we help them work with us to develop a value map? How do we not prioritize on their behalf? How do we sit down with chief medical officers and chief clinical officers of healthcare institutions and say, hey, "You're trying to do this clinical research.

Let's talk about the art of the possible, and let's work with you to have you facilitate what innovation opportunities look like. Now we'll take that back and see how we can bring not just AWS, but brought our Amazon capabilities to bear in order to be able to deliver that." That's the question we're trying to ask. Is it a one-way door? Is it a two-way door? Is it something that we can go back from? What we're realizing is a lot of strategy is a series of two-way doors that we can help and build with our customers and explore together. That just makes it a lot more fun.

What are some of the things that we're now exploring as a strategy function going forward? A lot of our customers are going global. They have to operate internationally. What does that look like in terms of strategy considerations? We talked a lot yesterday about diversity and biases. Well, we need to be able to understand how do we engage with global markets and global audiences in terms of delivering some of these missions. We're starting to have these conversations about centralization versus decentralization.

Look, three years ago, when we started, it made sense to have a centralized strategy function focused on federal and nonprofit and healthcare and hiring kind of specialists that knew that domain. Is that what we need now going forward? These are questions that we're asking and saying, what are some two-way door experiments that we can run with respect to that?"

That's my challenge to you all. Is that if you can think about what are the two-way doors within your organizations, if you can think about how you can respond to customer needs, be customer obsessed. If you can think about inventing and then simplifying how we deliver, then think we can deliver customer-obsessed strategy and execution for our customers. Thank you very much.

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