Debate Tenets

I’ve long thought having a set of guiding principles for any project is important (see my blog post “the 5Ps”; Purpose, Principles, Priorities, People, Plan).

At Amazon I learned there was a synonym to the word principle: Tenet.

I’ve heard Jeff Bezos say repeatedly “A team can never spend too much time debating their tenets.” Why is debating tenets so important?

First, debating (and writing down) tenets ensures everyone is in agreement about critical questions that can’t be verified with data or facts. For example, should we build a new Control4 lighting feature centered in the cloud or on-premise? Because our lighting team has debated and agreed on the following tenet, the answer is clear:

On-premise compute comes first. Lighting is a mission-critical capability for our end-customers, requiring low-latency, and resiliency to Internet outages. As a result we choose to invest in on-premise vs. cloud-based infrastructure for our Lighting products.

Second, tenets enable intellectual honesty. The topics around product development can be complex. There’s a tendency for the team trying to ship something to focus on the trees and not the forest; to get mired in the details, losing sight of the overall goal. The best tenets are oriented for the long-term and when a team steps back and debates tenets they create a framework that can be used later, when the ‘trees are closing in’, to keep track of the broader strategy.

The best tenets are memorable, with pithy descriptions. They are specific and not “motherhood-and-apple-pie”. Great tenets take a stand; you know you’re debating a good one if someone in the room has a negative reaction to it. Tenets are relevant today, but are oriented towards the long term; they rally around things that will always be true for customers. If a tenet covers more than one idea, break it into multiple that individually cover a single, essential idea that is memorable.

Here’s another example from Control4’s Comfort team:

We stand on the shoulders of giants. We recognize controlling the climate in a home is not a core competency for our company and for the Comfort program we choose to focus on integrating versus inventing. For example, we white-label a quality ODM thermostat device vs engineering one ourselves and ensure our interoperability APIs work great with the popular 3rd party smart thermostats.

If a set of people debate and then get aligned on tightly written, pithy, guiding principles (tenets) early, all decision making down the road becomes far easier.

See this related post for some Tenets for Crafting Great Tenets.

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