This post was inspired by a LinkedIn post by Dave Glick who was apparently the “Godfather of Tenets” at Amazon. Much of the content of this post is from notes I took in a class on Tenets at Amazon. I’ve subsequently used it to teach others how to be excellent at writing and using Tenets.
Tenets are a few, carefully articulated guiding principles for a program or business area. They act as a guide for the team, stakeholders, and senior leaders to align on a vision and decisions. Tenets simplify decision-making and help with being right more often; they can be used as tiebreakers when making tough judgment calls. Tenets are ultimately aligned with our company’s mission and core values. At the same time, tenets are specific to the program or the business area and aligned with its mission and vision.
Pro tip: Don’t confuse “tenet” with “tenant.” A tenant is someone who occupies land or property rented from a landlord. There is a pronounced second N in tenant, but not in tenet.
There are two kinds of Tenets: Foundational and Aspirational. Foundational tenets describe why your team or product exists and describe its intended value for customers. Aspirational tenets describe how a team or product intends to operate, even if it doesn’t do so today.
Tenets are not written in stone. At Amazon, where Tenets are widely used, they usually include the catchphrase “unless you know better ones.” This indicates that tenets are evolving. Teams are encouraged to improve their tenets, perfecting them over time, by welcoming input from others or by learning from writing a narrative or from past decisions that have revealed opportunities for refinement.
I wrote another post on the importance of debating Tenets here.
“You can never spend enough time debating the tenets for a program.” – Jeff Bezos
Tenets for Tenets (Unless you know better ones)
Use tenets to focus your program on delivering value to the customer. In a set of tenets, at least one should describe a program-specific principle for delivering value to the customer. In addition, there is value in considering what each tenet (or the tenets as a whole) would look like when framed as explicitly stating a benefit to customers. Customer obsession in tenets helps your team concentrate effort on what matters.
- Be memorable. Being memorable is correlated with effective teaching. Experience shows that the best tenets are memorable. Two attributes of memorable tenets are challenging the reader, and being concise.
- Be program-specific, or more specific than that. Good tenets get people excited about what the team does. People outside the team find that the tenets surprise them and give them insight about the team. Don’t make the most common tenet-writing mistake – creating a tenet that applies to many teams and communicates virtually no information, such as, “Our team builds scalable systems.” Each tenet should be as specific as possible while not suppressing innovation or excessively violating other tenets such as being durable.
- Counsel. Tenets help individuals make hard choices and trade-offs. A tenet takes a stand by declaring that a team cares more about one thing than another. Tenets guide rather than prescribe detailed actions.
- Each tenet has only one main idea. Chiseling a tenet down to a single essential idea makes the tenet memorable and clear.
- Find a minimal cover. Each program operates in a space of ideas – its semantic space. A program team’s tenets cover most of its semantic space, using the minimum number of single-idea tenets needed to do so.
- Orient for the long term. A tenet is durable and strategic. It may challenge or affirm traditional mindsets, and cause individuals to work in strategic directions they might not otherwise pursue. Tenets survive multiple rounds of goal-setting, achievement, and failure.
- A tenet is not something to be done later. A tenet captures an idea that team members could conceivably apply every day. Tenets are present-tense; using the word “will” or “should” in a tenet is common and is almost always a mistake.
- Distinguish rather than elevate. Tenets capture what makes a team different, not what makes it superior.
Why Write Tenets?
Tenets get everyone in agreement about critical questions that can’t be verified factually. For example, is it better to be customer obsessed or competitor obsessed? It’s hard to gather data and prove that one is better than the other. But specifically choosing that the whole company should be ‘customer obsessed’ helps us work together without re-hashing a nuanced debate for every product. Having tenets at many levels (company, org, team, project) can be used to narrow down on the critical, unprovable decisions specific to that org, team, or project.
Tenets keep you honest with yourself. – It’s easy to get caught up in group-think or distracted by the nuances of a specific project and lose sight of the overall goals. By stepping back, setting tenets, and then considering those tenets along the way and only changing them when you step back again will help you keep track of the wider strategy.
Examples of Great Tenets
I think the Tenets on Tenets above are pretty great (they were borrowed from Amazon). Please comment below if you have more examples!