A New Way of Working: Foster Freedom and Responsibility

Adaptability and high performance are key.

Courtesy of Samuel Zeller/Unsplash

In an executive meeting one day at Netflix, we suddenly realized that in nine months we would account for a third of U.S. Internet bandwidth. We had grown around 30 percent a quarter for three quarters in a row. At the time, we were still thinking that we might eventually be as big as HBO, but not for many years. Our head of product did a quick calculation of how much bandwidth we’d need in a year if we maintained our current growth rate. He then said, “You know, that would be a third of U.S. Internet bandwidth.” We all just looked at him and blurted out in unison, “WHAT?” I asked him, “Does anyone at the company know how to make sure we can manage that?” He answered, with the honesty we always hoped for, “I don’t know.”

In my fourteen years on the executive team at Netflix, we constantly faced such daunting growth challenges, sometimes existential ones, and in technologies and services that we were pioneering. There was no playbook; we had to make it up. From the moment I joined Netflix, when the company had barely launched, the nature of our business and our field of competitors evolved continuously and incredibly rapidly. Our business model, the technology that drove our services, and the teams of people we needed in order to execute had to do more than keep pace—we had to anticipate changes and proactively strategize and prepare for them. We had to hire stellar talent in whole new areas of expertise and fluidly reconfigure our teams. We also had to be ready at any moment to cast aside our plans, admit mistakes, and embrace a new course. The company had to perpetually reinvent itself—first figuring out how to keep our DVD-by-mail business thriving while simultaneously throwing ourselves into learning how to stream; then moving our systems to the cloud; then beginning to create original programming.

My book is not a memoir of the building of Netflix. It is a guide to building a high-performance culture that can meet the challenges of today’s rapid pace of change in business, written for team leaders at all levels. Netflix may be an especially stark example, but all companies, from start-ups to corporate behemoths, must become great adapters. They need the ability to anticipate new market demands and to pounce on remarkable opportunities and new technologies. Otherwise, the competition will simply innovate faster. Now that I am consulting with companies all over the world, from large blue chips like J. Walter Thompson to fast-growth newcomers like Warby Parker, HubSpot, and India’s Hike Messenger, as well as a number of fledgling start-ups, I see the wider landscape of challenge vividly. It’s striking how similar—and pressing—the fundamental problems are. Everybody wants to know the same thing: how can they create some of their own Netflix mojo? More specifically, how can they create for themselves the kind of nimble, high-performance culture that has made Netflix so successful? That’s what this book is about: how you can draw on the lessons that we learned at Netflix and apply the principles and practices we developed to managing your own team or company.

Did we do everything right at Netflix? Not by a long shot. We had plenty of stumbles, some very public. And we didn’t have a big aha moment about how to meet our challenges; we evolved a new way of working through incremental adaptation: trying new things, making mistakes, beginning again, and seeing good results. Ultimately, we created a distinctive culture that supports adaptability and high performance. I am not going to claim that tackling the challenges of rapid change is easy in any way or for anyone. The good news is that we found that inculcating a core set of behaviors in people, then giving them the latitude to practice those behaviors—well, actually, demanding that they practice them—makes teams astonishingly energized and proactive. Such teams are the best drivers to get you where you need to go.

People Have Power; Don’t Take It Away

The first step in adopting the practices I’ll present is embracing a management mind-set that overturns conventional wisdom. The fundamental lesson we learned at Netflix about success in business today is this: the elaborate, cumbersome system for managing people that was developed over the course of the twentieth century is just not up to the challenges companies face in the twenty-first. Reed Hastings and I and the rest of the management team decided that, over time, we would explore a radical new way to manage people—a way that would allow them to exercise their full powers.

We wanted all of our people to challenge us, and one another, vigorously. We wanted them to speak up about ideas and problems; to freely push back, in front of one another and in front of us. We didn’t want anyone, at any level, keeping vital insights and concerns to themselves. The executive team modeled this: We made ourselves accessible, and we encouraged questions. We engaged in open, intense debate and made sure all of our managers knew we wanted them to do the same. Reed even staged debates between members of the executive team. We also communicated honestly and continuously about challenges the company was facing and how we were going to tackle them. We wanted everyone to understand that change would be a constant and that we would make whatever changes of plan, and of personnel, we thought necessary to forge ahead at high speed. We wanted people to embrace the need for change and be thrilled to drive it. We had come to understand that the most successful organizations in this world of increasingly rapid disruption will be the ones in which everyone, on every team, understands that all bets are off and everything is changing—and thinks that’s great.

To build that kind of company, we were intent on creating a culture of great teamwork and innovative problem solving. We wanted people to feel excited to come to work each day, not despite the challenges but because of them. I’m not going to say that working at Netflix wasn’t often extremely hair-raising. Some of the decisions we had to make were radical plunges into the unknown, and that was often truly scary. But it was also exhilarating.

The Netflix culture wasn’t built by developing an elaborate new system for managing people; we did the opposite. We kept stripping away policies and procedures. We realized that the prevailing approach to building teams and managing people is as outdated as product innovation was before the quickening pace of disruption demanded the development of agile, lean, and customer-centric methods. It’s not that companies aren’t trying all kinds of things to manage better; but most of what they’re doing is either beside the point or counterproductive.

Most companies are clinging to the established command-and-control system of top-down decision making but trying to jazz it up by fostering “employee engagement” and by “empowering” people. Compelling but misguided ideas about “best practices” prevail: bonuses and pay tied to annual performance reviews; big HR initiatives like the recent craze for lifelong learning programs; celebrations to build camaraderie and make sure people have some fun; and, for employees who are struggling, performance improvement plans. These foster empowerment, and with that comes engagement, which leads to job satisfaction and employee happiness, and that leads to high performance, or so the thinking goes.

I used to believe this too. I started my career in HR at Sun Microsystems and then Borland Software, implementing the whole gamut of conventional practices. I negotiated all kinds of tantalizing bonuses. I dutifully rallied my teams for the dreaded performance review season and coached managers through the performance improvement process. When I ran diversity programs at Sun, I even spent $100,000 on a Cinco de Mayo party. But over time I saw that all of those policies and systems were enormously costly, time-consuming, and unproductive. Even more important, I saw that they were premised on false assumptions about human beings: that most people must be incentivized in order to really throw themselves into their work, and that they need to be told what to do. The “best practices” that have been developed on the basis of these premises are, ironically, disincentivizing and disempowering.

Yes, engaged employees probably deliver higher-quality performance, but too often engagement is treated as the endgame, rather than serving customers and getting results. And the standard beliefs about how and why people are engaged in their work miss the true drivers of work passion. As for empowerment, I simply hate that word. The idea is well intentioned, but the truth is that there is so much concern about empowering people only because the prevailing way of managing them takes their power away. We didn’t set out to take it away; we just overprocessed everything. We’ve hamstrung people.

What I came to understand deeply and in a new way once I made my way into the scrappier start-up world is that people have power. A company’s job isn’t to empower people; it’s to remind people that they walk in the door with power and to create the conditions for them to exercise it. Do that, and you will be astonished by the great work they will do for you.

This article is excerpted from Powerful: Building A Culture Of Freedom And Responsibility, by Patty McCord. It is reprinted with permission from Silicon Guild. 

Work Smarter, Performance, Technology

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