How to answer Amazon "Bias for Action" interview questions

The ninth Amazon leadership principle is “Bias for Action.” If you’re preparing for an interview at Amazon, you should ask yourself what Amazon means by “Bias for Action” and how this principle applies to your past experience and to your future role at the company.

If you don’t know about the Amazon leadership principles, consider first reading this article about interviewing at Amazon.

How Amazon explains the “Bias for Action” principle

Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.

What does the bias for action principle mean?

Having a bias for action means you’re not afraid to make decisions and take action, even when (especially when) you face uncertainty. Maybe you’ve worked with someone or a team who didn’t have a bias for action. In the face of uncertainty, these individuals freeze and can’t make a decision. They’re afraid of getting it wrong and being held accountable for making a poor decision.

This sort of “analysis paralysis” isn’t tolerated at Amazon. They want leaders who are willing to put themselves out there and take a risk. These leaders are no different than anyone else in their fear of failure. What makes them stand out is that they accept risk and make calculated decisions that unblock them and the people they work with. Yes, Amazon wants you to look at data and make sense of it and use it to form your plan, but they don’t want you to get stuck looking at the data. They want you to move past research and analysis into action.

Here are the characteristics of someone having a “Bias for Action”:

  • When faced with a tough decision that will help you and your team move forward, you don’t avoid that decision. You’re not afraid to step up and make the call.

  • You encourage this same behavior in your direct reports. You let them know you’ll stand behind them if they take a risk that doesn’t work out.

  • If you’re missing some key piece of information, you try to get it as quickly as possible. If you can’t, you’re not afraid to move ahead without it.

  • You foster an environment of action bias by responding promptly to colleagues looking for information, and always deliver on your promises.

  • You roll up your sleeves and remove obstacles, even when it’s “not your job.”

  • Still stuck? You ask for help. You don’t let yourself or your team be stuck for days at a time. 

Interview Questions Related to the “Bias for Action” Principle

If your interviewer asks about this leadership principle, she or he might ask one of the following questions:

  • Tell me about a time you took a risk. What kind of risk was it?

  • Give me an example of a calculated risk that you have taken where speed was critical. What was the situation and how did you handle it? What steps did you take to mitigate the risk? What was the outcome?

  • Tell me about a time you had to make a decision with incomplete information. How did you make it and what was the outcome?

  • Describe a time you had to make an important decision on the spot to close a sale.

  • Describe a situation where you made an important business decision without consulting your manager. What was the situation and how did it turn out?

  • Tell me about a time when you had to analyze facts quickly, define key issues, and respond immediately to a situation. What was the outcome?

  • Tell me about a time when you have worked against tight deadlines and didn't have the time to consider all options before making a decision. How much time did you have? What approach did you take?

  • Give an example of when you had to make an important decision and had to decide between moving forward or gathering more information. What did you do? What information is necessary for you to have before acting?

  • Describe a time when you saw some problem and took the initiative to correct it rather than waiting for someone else to do it.

  • Tell me about a time you needed to get information from someone who wasn’t very responsive. What did you do?

  • Tell me about a time where you felt your team was not moving to action quickly enough. What did you do? (Manager)

  • Tell me about a time when you were able to remove a serious roadblock/barrier preventing your team from making progress? How were you able to remove the barrier? What was the outcome? (Manager)

How to Answer Questions Related to the “Bias for Action” Principle

Answer given by a Senior Backup Engineer

Question: Tell me about a time you had to make a decision quickly.

We had to expand the storage capacity of a Commvault server to accommodate new machines that were coming online. We planned to double the capacity of the server from 32 to 64 terabytes. For this upgrade, the server had to be converted to MediaAgent, a procedure that was documented and tested. We followed the documentation closely, but in production, the Windows batch file that was supposed to convert the server to MediaAgent accidentally deleted some important files on the server, effectively rendering the existing Commvault server useless. All backups from applications/DB started failing.

While experts from Commvault HQ were engaged to find the root cause, the customer was informed about this problem. In an hour, I determined that the problem was not easily fixable. I wanted to use a new server, but the Commvault license was linked to a particular IP address. Instead of waiting to hear back from Commvault HQ and our purchasing department on getting another license, I simply copied the XML license to a new machine, changed the IP, and updated the existing license. At that point, the team could move forward.

How does this answer show a “Bias for Action”? With the backup server rendered inoperable, the engineer in this story was faced with a big problem. The more time she wasted, the more backup data would be lost. But she didn’t wait for others to solve her problem. She quickly diagnosed the problem and identified a workaround that would get the team back on its feet. That’s a “Bias for Action.”

Answer given by a Solutions Architect

Question: Tell me about a time you had to make a decision quickly.

One of the largest insurance providers in North America has been a long-standing customer. They have been using a different vendor’s solution for UNIX bridging capability. Once they learned that we also offer a UNIX bridging solution, they wanted to conduct a proof of concept. As I had been working with that customer as a trusted advisor, they requested me to do the POC.

Before starting the POC, I had a working session with the customer’s technical team to review the use cases currently being implemented. Upon reviewing the use cases, I found out that one of their key use cases is not supported out of the box by our solution. Supporting that use case would require an enhancement to the existing product functionality. Given the importance of the POC, I reached out internally for an approval to engage the engineering team immediately and worked with the team in adding that capability to the product. I didn’t want to wait to do this.

The engineering team provided a patch in a short time, and I was able to successfully deliver the POC addressing all the use cases.

In this story, the solutions architect could have told the customer that the product doesn’t support the use case. Instead, he coordinated with his team a quick product update (a “patch”) that would accommodate the use case, leading to a successful POC. This answer shows a “Bias for Action” and true “Customer Obsession”!

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I’m happy to say that after working with me, my clients, who range from entry level to executive level, have done well in their interviews and gotten the job they wanted at Amazon.

If you’d like to work with me to prepare for your interview, email me at jennifer@interviewgenie.com to schedule a free 15 minute consultation or a full interview prep session.

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