Emergent Intelligence: What We Can Learn From Amazon

What does emergent intelligence mean? How does emergent intelligence make Amazon more successful?

Emergent intelligence is the concept of a team solving problems together without a central figure coordinating the project. Knowing how emergent intelligence works can grow your organization’s strengths.

Learn how Amazon used the concept of emergent intelligence to its advantage.

Amazon’s Big-Picture Planning Enables Emergent Intelligence

In Team of Teams, Stanley McChrystal contends that the most effective organizations display emergent intelligence—this is when a collection of teams can solve complex problems without any central part of the organization coordinating their actions. By allowing lower-ranking team leaders to propose the specific goals of their own teams’ work, Amazon creates the conditions for this emergent intelligence to arise. Individual teams know better than executives how their specific team can be most effective, so they’re better suited to dictate their actions.

McChrystal also notes that workers make better decisions when they understand how the organization works as a whole. At Amazon, high-ranking executives are the ones with the most big-picture knowledge of how the different parts of the company work together. This makes them well-suited to set overarching company goals and prioritize the goals of the teams below them.

However, McChrystal notes a potential risk of the Amazon planning process: To be effective, the members of all teams (not just executives) need to understand how the organization works holistically—at least at a basic level. If you implement a planning process like this, make sure that executives give their subordinates enough broad information about the organization for them to formulate the best goals.

That said, it’s possible to take information-sharing too far. It would be a waste of everyone’s time if all leaders had to be aware of every little detail of what goes on in the company—this is likely why Amazon only has these big-picture planning sessions twice a year.

Big-Picture Planning Requires Detailed Information

One way in which Amazon’s big-picture planning process is different from that of other companies is how it incorporates another one of their guiding principles: Leaders should constantly probe for details until they understand their subordinates’ work at a granular level. Whereas most managers only care about what their subordinates do, Amazon leaders concern themselves with how their subordinates get things done. This way, they can do everything in their power to ensure that those below them are making progress toward the company’s goals. If they see their team is using an ineffective strategy, they may choose to intervene.

For example, whereas a traditional head of a marketing department would tell their subordinates to launch an email newsletter and report back when it’s done, an Amazon manager would request much more information before ordering their team to prioritize the newsletter. They might ask their team to sketch out a strategic timeline for the first few months of the newsletter, request a more detailed budget breakdown, and ask to see a sample email before giving their team the go-ahead.

Counterpoint: Beware of Micromanagement

When engaging with the granular details of your subordinates’ work, be careful not to cross the line into micromanagement. In The Dichotomy of Leadership, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin warn that leaders who take responsibility for their team’s success may try to control everything their subordinates do to accomplish that goal. However, such a micromanaging manager teaches subordinates that their way is the only “right” way to do things, encouraging the team to wait for instructions instead of inventing their own paths to success. 

For this reason, Willink and Babin recommend that managers be much more hands-off than Amazon managers. If a manager even checks in on their team’s progress too frequently, their subordinates may perceive it as micromanagement.
Emergent Intelligence: What We Can Learn From Amazon

Becca King

Becca’s love for reading began with mysteries and historical fiction, and it grew into a love for nonfiction history and more. Becca studied journalism as a graduate student at Ohio University while getting their feet wet writing at local newspapers, and now enjoys blogging about all things nonfiction, from science to history to practical advice for daily living.

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