AF#3 - How Do You Add Value When You Haven't Been Told What To Do

This post is about how to contribute in a situation where you have not been given a specific problem to solve. At Amazon they call it ‘dealing with ambiguity’…

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In finance at Amazon you’re often tasked with ‘supporting’ some area of the business. The fact that these marching orders are ambiguous is not a defect, it’s by design.

They want you to go figure out how to add value.

So how does one go about doing this? Here are some tips to help you out.


First off, start with anything that isn’t ambiguous. If there are any discrete deliverables you are specifically responsible for, like a month end report, go solve those first.

That means automate, simplify, and assess which aspects of your task are actually worthwhile continuing. It’s ok if this starts out as 90% of your time. This gets you grounded with something tangible.

But start turning that into 60, 50, 40% of your time, asap.

A Quick Story

When I started my role in Amazon Web Services (AWS) I was ‘supporting’ the business development team of adding new data centers. My main task was creating 10-year NPV models to evaluate potential investments.

When I talked to my business partner during my first week I asked him what would be most helpful. That week he needed help vetting the financial solvency of three new vendors he was considering.

I dropped my Excel models and spent 3 days up to my neck in financial reports. At the end of the week I handed him a summary.

He was delighted. I solved his problem, he could make a decision,  I helped the business. And there was not an NPV model in site.

There are three main takeaways I want to highlight from this story that will help you for adding value in ambiguous situations.

Step 1: Ask

Talk to your stakeholders to find out the problems that are actually bothering them.

Don’t try to guess what’s valuable, ask them. Let them tell you their biggest pain points.

“What keeps you up at night? What is our biggest opportunity? How can finance help?”

These are a few examples.

Step 2: Know Thyself

Know what you are equipped to solve.

There are some problems that you won’t be in a position to repair. Trying to fix something not in your wheelhouse is inefficient. You’ll be most effective working on things within your sphere of influence.

It’s why we import maple syrup from Canada. Comparative advantage. It would be strange if your mechanic tried to give you a haircut.

Step 3: Form Your Own Opinion

This wasn’t exactly covered in the story but as you gain experience you’ll be able to start making suggestions about what the business should do differently.

You’ll do this by figuring out which inputs under their control have the greatest impact on long term cash flows. Translating inputs to outputs will give you insights you can use to guide their behavior.

This could take the form of recommending which activities they need to start, or stop, or increase, or start measuring.


OK, so hopefully that’s a non-ambiguous way to give you some ideas about how to deal with ambiguity and how to go about adding value without being told specifically what to do.

Have some thoughts? Feel free to drop a comment or hit me up:

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