Tenets and Principles

Tenets are a few carefully articulated guiding principles for any endeavor. They act as a guide to align on a vision and simplify decision-making. Tenets are the written-down rules that distinguish good behavior from behavior that is not welcome. Tenets simplify and help with being right more often; they can be used as tiebreakers when making tough judgment calls. There is no better way to expose misalignment, and then get aligned, than going through the process of crafting, debating, and codifying tenets.

Tenets are ultimately aligned with an organization’s mission and core values. At the same time, tenets are specific to an endeavor (company, program, project, product, or business area).

Tenets appear at the beginning of narratives, to help ensure that the plan put forth by a team is consistent with its beliefs. Tenets are the “Principle” part of a 5P’s Plan.

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 reinforces 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)

  1. Obsess over Customers. Use tenets to focus the endeavor on delivering value to the customer. In a set of tenets, at least one should describe an endeavor-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 concentrate effort on what matters.
  2. 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.
  3. Be Endeavor-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 into the team. The most common tenet-writing mistake is 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.
  4. 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; absolutes in tenets are a warning sign in this regard.
  5. Each Tenet has Only One Main Idea. Chisel each tenet down to a single essential idea making the tenet memorable and clear.
  6. Find a Minimal Cover. Each endeavor operates in a space of ideas – its semantic space. A team’s tenets cover most of its semantic space, using the minimum number of single-idea tenets needed to do so.
  7. 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.
  8. 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. 
  9. Distinguish Rather than Elevate. Tenets capture what makes a team different, not what makes it superior.

Why Write Tenets?

Tenets define culture. Tenets are literally the rules for behavior and as a result, when reinforced with appropriate mechanisms, drive the behaviors of individuals. Without tenets, culture comes randomly. With tenets, culture is intentional and directed.

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 gain clarity on the critical, unprovable decisions specific to that org, team, or project.

Tenets expose intellectual dishonesty. – It’s easy to get caught up in groupthink or distracted by the nuances of a specific project and lose sight of the overall goals. Stepping back, setting tenets, and then considering those tenets along the way and only changing them when you step back again will help teams keep track of the wider strategy.

Examples of Tenets

The Tenets on Tenets listed above are pretty great examples! The Amazon Leadership Principles are also fantastic (remember Principle == Tenet). Below are more examples.

  • Our Products Make Other Products Fantastic. We strive to create fantastic products.  While our products are designed to be competitive and work well standalone, their true value is delivering fantastic experiences when integrated into solutions. 

The above example illustrates a memorable tenet that reminds a team working on a platform they are in the business of bringing other companies’ products together on behalf of the customer.

A similar tenet to the above is the following. In this case, the tenet is more about technical innovation vs. integration:

  • We Stand on the Shoulders of Giants. Customer value comes from innovating in how existing technologies are integrated together. We look for opportunities to borrow (and even plagiarize) existing technologies to adapt and avoid the temptation to re-invent (or even invent) the wheel. For example, we would rather white-label a quality device from another company than engineer one ourselves. 

This example was used in the merger of two companies:

  • Our Org Structure is Invisible to Customers. We are one company. We have one name. One product group. One sales force. One platform. 

Here, the tenet counsels the team on making trade-offs between customer segments. It’s a tenet that reinforces business-critical prioritization:

  • We Prioritize Both End Customers and Partner Customers, but when forced to make trade-offs between one or the other, we are biased toward end customers.

Sometimes an endeavor needs to be reminded of a fundamental aspect of a team’s strategy. For example, this tenet comes from a smart home lighting program where latency and privacy concerns meant a cloud-centric solution was non-viable:

  • On-Premise Compute Comes First. Lighting is a mission-critical capability for our end customers and as a result, we choose to invest in on-premise, vs. cloud-based infrastructure for our Lighting products. 

Another program may have a strategic bias towards a cloud-first model. The equivalent tenet would read:

  • The Truth is in The Cloud. We simplify our architecture by ensuring there is always a single source of truth for customer data. Because our solutions span the globe, we ensure the single source of truth is in the cloud vs. on-premise.

Below is a whole set of tenets from one company’s plan for creating a patent portfolio:

  • Defense is the Best Offense. We use our patent portfolio as a defense against patent trolls and weaker competitors who choose to use patents to stymie innovation or bolster their own revenue. Only in highly considered situations will we use patents as a “sword” asserted against others or to drive revenue directly. 
  • Novel, not Numbers. We value a patent portfolio made up of a broad set of real innovations over having a large patent portfolio. Patents are expensive; we judiciously budget and spend on only the highest-quality patents. We are biased towards utility over design and will only apply for design patents in highly considered situations. 
  • The Company’s Patent Strategy is our Employees’ Patent Strategy. We have hundreds of highly intelligent, innovative-thinking employees. These employees deserve to have their great work highlighted in the company’s patent portfolio. Identifying and documenting new inventions is an integral part of an engineer’s job description and we provide only modest financial incentives for filing patents. 
  • Our Patent Portfolio Models our Global Footprint. The US provides the biggest bang for the buck but we work to ensure our portfolio provides appropriate defense in other important geographies.  

More examples that might not be endeavor-specific enough (because they are so broad), but may also be useful if the purpose of the tenets is to drive cultural change:

  • Get Data and Use Data. We make decisions based on data. If we don’t have the data, we invest in measuring. If we can’t get the data, we value anecdotes and our observations.  
  • Say, Do, Show. We build plans and we transparently communicate to internal stakeholders. Then we execute against those plans, showing clear progress and results along the way.

I frequently craft and debate tenets for aspects of my personal life. These help me know myself better and reinforce relationships with others (because I share and debate them with the people I’m close to):

  • Find Magic and Get Lucky. I put myself in situations where I can say yes to things I previously would say no to. This is how magic experiences happen. Luck is when preparation meets opportunity. For example, I seek travel and adventures that will create opportunities to make new friends. Likewise, whenever in a new city, I seek opportunities to mentor and coach young entrepreneurs.
  • Serve at Civilization Scale. I strive to give more than I take. I’ve already taken a lot. I invest my professional energy on problems (and people) that positively impact the future of humanity. For example, I choose to apply my skills and expertise towards space, because it’s the most leveraged way for me to help preserve the precious life on this planet.

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. Likewise, “principle” is spelled p-r-i-n-c-i-p-l-e, not p-r-i-n-c-i-p-a-l.

See also:

Debate this topic with me:

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