How To Innovate With Jeff Bezos' Beginner Mindset In 2019

For innovation to drive disruption, it needs to be big and significant not only to a company itself but also to its entire industry.

This article originally appeared on as part of Delphix Founder & Executive Chairman Jedidiah Yueh's ongoing column. See the original post here.

I see dead companies.

These companies don’t know they’re dead. They function like normal companies. They employ thousands or even hundreds of thousands. They generate billions in revenue.

They soberly bear witness to disruption — massive, economic wildebeests watching wide-eyed as the unfortunate get pruned from the herd by the Amazons and Netflixes of the world. (My company is a provider for Amazon Web Services.)

They’re troubled. They know they need to act. They tell themselves they have digital transformation programs. They’ve hired a chief digital officer. They spend millions or even billions a year on technology.

And yet they’re already dead.

I recently gave the opening keynote for an exclusive gathering of board-nominated executives chartered with driving change for their companies. CEO, GMs and executives from multinational companies across different industries and regions came together to iterate on strategy and talk about how to make an impact on their companies and the world.

I challenged them to “disrupt or die," which was the subject of a book I wrote on innovation and digital transformation.

Over several days of discussions and debates, I listened as these executives struggled to apply frameworks for innovation to their organizations. They spoke passionately about their frustrations.

They said, “We’re a large, complex organization.”

“We operate in a highly regulated industry.”

“We can’t do the things that startups do.”

“We have to consider risk and reputation.”

“We have a legacy workforce and a culture resistant to change.”

Even though they could have spent their time collaborating on product ideas, they spent most of their time convincing me why they cannot innovate.

In other words, they are trapped in a legacy mindset. They are their own biggest barriers to innovation. 

Executives in large, legacy enterprises know a great deal about their industries, risks and regulations. Maybe they know too much.

They’ve developed deep expertise, accumulated lessons learned and optimized a myriad of industry-specific workflows and processes.

Along the way, they may have lost the ability to dream and ideate in a material, unfettered way.

At an annual shareholder meeting, Jeff Bezos reportedly described why invention is “very, very hard.” According to GeekWire, Bezos said it requires domain expertise, but the innovator must avoid being “corrupted by that domain knowledge.”

“You still need a beginner’s mind,” he said.

For innovation to drive disruption, it needs to be big and significant not only to a company itself but also to its entire industry. Experts often know too much of what's been done, what's being done now and what's to come. They may see all the details of the trees but miss big-picture opportunities.

I was literally a high school teacher before I invented my first disruptive software product, which went on to generate billions in revenue. I didn't know anything, so I had to approach things with a beginner's mind.

Legacy leaders also often confuse the "how" with the "what." When I ask executives about their most innovative programs, they often respond with the usual suspects:

“We’re transitioning from waterfall to agile development, and we’re investing in DevOps.”

“We’re moving to the cloud.”

“We’re focused on improving the user experience.”

“We’ve automated some jobs with machine learning and robotic process automation (RPA).”

But these are just processes or tools. Moving to the cloud doesn’t generally matter unless you’re building the right product. Using artificial intelligence, machine learning or RPAs to improve operational efficiency is well and good, but it won’t prevent or enable large-scale disruption.

Here’s the key question: Will your top digital transformation program define the future of your industry?

If the answer is no, then you may need to stop focusing on the "how" and find your "what." Innovate, define and deliver the application or product that will win the future of your industry. 

But don't try to move mountains. Don't try to influence the culture and makeup of an entire legacy organization at the outset.

Instead, you can build molehills of innovation. Identify and enable the innovators and product thinkers in your organization and form a product nucleus.

What are some ways to unleash your company’s innovation potential?

Adopt Silicon Valley's model for finding innovators with innovation contests where employees can submit ideas and pitch their products to a group of executives -- mimicking a pitch to a VC partnership.

But don't be limited by the people within your organization. Invite repeat entrepreneurs and founders who have created multiple successful software products to join your product nucleus and participate in your pitch review boards. They can be the ultimate shortcut, and there are a surprising number of them. I've found that startups often add repeat founders to advisory boards and compensate them with equity or cash.

Once you identify your top innovators and product thinkers, have them maintain an open funnel of ideas. Constantly ideate on products, business models and go-to-market strategies until you find your "what" -- until you define a product that will win the future of your industry.

Host internal hackathons to jumpstart ideation and execution. Assemble war rooms to dissect the products of would-be competitors — and then build something better

But maintain a critical eye, even with your best ideas. Let only the strongest product ideas survive.

Once you define that compelling product, everything else will likely flow more naturally. The product can help define the development team you need to assemble, which can be small to start. Once you achieve product-market fit, you can begin to test the go-to-market strategy, which will dictate the longer-term organization and investment required to succeed at scale. Don't try to solve everything at once.

Start by surrounding yourself with product thinkers. And when you get an innovator in a room with you, don’t talk about why you can’t innovate. Spend all your time talking about products and innovation.

In the end, a beginner’s mindset begins with you.