What can Thailand learn from Jeff Bezos?

“Inaction is the default mode of Thai bureaucrats and most developing nations’ governments. It is better to not do anything (and not risk screwing up) than taking action and making mistakes.”

By | Mon 26 Apr 2021

The founder of e-commerce Amazon recently announced his resignation to focus on his philanthropy and space programme Blue Origin. Twenty odd years ago, Amazon started selling books online. Then it gradually added more things onto its platform to become ‘the everything store’ where low-prices and fast shipping were guaranteed. Along its journey, it has made many powerful enemies, at one point in time, in one way or another, – from ebay, Walmart, and Barnes & Noble to Google, Microsoft, and thousands of manufacturers whose margins were squeezed out. It proved the Wall Street investors wrong again and again, and not only survived but thrived. As of 2021, the company is worth $1.5 trillion; Jeff Bezos’s net worth is $180 billion. The defeat of the union vote in Alabama meant one fewer obstacle for the company.

What lessons can a competitive and resourceful guy like Jeff Bezos impart to the Land of smiles? The land of sea, sand, sun, and inefficient public sector? Here are the four key lessons.

Lesson 1: Biased for action
Inaction is the default mode of Thai bureaucrats and most developing nations’ governments. It is better to not do anything (and not risk screwing up) than taking action and making mistakes. For, if taking action leads to success, they will not get a pay raise; their boss would take the credit. If they fail, however, their career is on the line. So, better not rock the boat.

Additionally, the public and the opposition can be very unforgiving with major mistakes. Thus, a powerful incentive exists for inaction, especially for the boss, as he, too, doesn’t want to be transferred to an ‘inactive post.’ When obedience is prized over taking actions things stay the same, projects remain stalled, pot holes don’t get fixed, the environment gets ravaged.

All actions have risks and consequences, especially during trying times like Covid-19. Ignored by most people, however, are the bigger risks and consequences for inaction. I wouldn’t go so far as to fire 50% of the civil servant workforce and move everything online as per Jeff Bezos’ method. But encouraging the public sector to increase taking actions by 20% is achievable.

Lesson 2: The two boxes of pizzas
I find most meetings useless. The larger the group, the more inefficient it is due to the law of diminishing returns. In Amazon, many projects are done in a small group – small enough the group could share two boxes of pizzas at the office together. The reality in the Land of Smiles is that public sector meetings give the impression of productivity. Committees are formed to appear they are working hard for taxpayers. Decisions are rigorously debated and thrashed out until 2am when in actuality many of them are partying away at posh clubs.

During the Chiang Mai local election, for which I ran as a candidate for municipal council, I remember sitting through a three-hour session, all political parties present, to hear briefings by the election commissioners – their uniforms crisply ironed, with all their badges and ranking insignias attached. Come Q&A time not even a single audience member asked a question. A ten-page summary in PDF concisely written and summarised would have sufficed. Instead, we got a 200-page booklet of all the rules and regulations of election, which none of us read.

Small groups where colleagues are comfortable to share candid opinions, where titles are minimised, with everyone working toward the same goal is optimal.

Lesson 3: Less Communications
This lesson is counter-intuitive. But it is what you would expect from a hyper-rational and hedge fund guy like Bezos.

At one of the management offsite meetings, a junior executive stood up before everyone and said there was difficulty in communication with other divisions. That more cross-divisions communications were needed. Red-face Bezos, his veins throbbing, said “Communication is a sign of dysfunction. It means people aren’t working together in a close, organic way. We should be trying to figure out a way for teams to communicate less with each other, not more.”

What Jeff meant is creating a system, much like the Amazon website. With only a few clicks, I could have books delivered to my front door, with my credit card and address details already saved. I do not need another human being to help with the purchase. When the system is functioning smoothly, little to no communication between staff, and between staff and customers, is required.

Imagine checking-in to an airline counter and you have to spend 20 minutes explaining your oversized baggage and your vegan flight meal arrangement to the clerk, sorting out the extra charge, with a long que waiting behind you. This process should have been done on the web, so little communication and minimum time are involved at the check-in counter, expediting the process for all passengers.

Oftentimes communication gives the illusion of working when it can be a cover for laziness and inaction. We hear from books, speakers, researchers, and the media that communication is the key to success. If that is the case, why hasn’t communications solved racism, income inequality, epidemics, divorce, obesity, and global warming? The UN holds conferences regularly, with world leaders talking for days. If talking is the panacea, then politicians would have solved all the world’s problems by now.

Crucial to this is meaningful communication rather than wasteful communication.

Lesson 4: Customer-centric (voter-centric)
Without customers a business cannot survive just as without citizens a country cannot exist. Amazon’s overarching goal has always been the customers. Making their experience on Amazon effortless with low prices. Governments of all colours likewise should strive toward that goal – being consumer/voter-centric. Voters should not have to beg to get roads fixed, trees planted, canals cleaned, powerlines reattached, flooding managed. They are not indebted to the powers-that-be. Making lives easier for citizens, enhancing their quality of life and well-being should be every government’s core value.

On the other hand, the marketing machinery can be a tool for lies. One particular Thai political party versed in marketing had come up with the first-car scheme, encouraging car ownership with government backing, with undesirable results. Today, they are proposing better public transportations due to the gridlock and pollution caused by cars. A complete U-turn.

Action over inaction; small over large groups; meaningful communications over unnecessary communication; thinking what others want over what we want. With these four key lessons, Thailand could be “Thaimazon” – more productive while retaining the charming Thai smile.


**Photo credit: Getty Images**