Tenets and Principles

Tenets are a few, carefully articulated guiding principles for any endeavor (a program, business area, or project). 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 a 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.

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)

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Each tenet has only one main idea. Chiseling a tenet down to a single essential idea makes the tenet memorable and clear.
  5. Find a minimal cover. Each program 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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. 
  8. 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. 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 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 in solutions. 

The above example illustrates a memorable tenet that reminds the team they are in the business of bringing other company’s 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. Our 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 bias toward end customers.

Sometimes a program needs to be reminded of a fundamental aspect of a company’s (or group’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 a 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 program-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.

Please comment below if you have more examples!

See also:

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