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How Netflix Built an Innovative Culture



April 25, 2019

Netflix Product Tank Event

Culture is predicated on values which often sound nice and inspirational. They feel important, and they generally are, but values that simply sound nice are not enough. Last week, Gibson (Gib) Biddle, former VP of Product at Netflix, came to Connected to speak at Toronto’s latest ProductTank meetup. He spoke about what culture means, why it is so important, and the mechanisms required to make culture a part of everyday life in an organization. Gib gave us his thoughts from his experience at Netflix on how companies should define, edit, and live their unique culture.

Defining a Culture

“Culture is like water to a fish – they don’t see it or know what it is exactly, but it governs everything that’s possible.” This quote by Dave Gray, Founder of XPLANE, drives home how culture is difficult to define but is woven so intricately in everything we do. A good and healthy culture should be felt around us in our organization but not forced upon us. 

At Connected, it has been a conscious decision since day one to define a culture that breeds innovation. You can tell by looking at our people that we’re engaged and passionate about what we do. Our values are important to us and are ingrained in our culture; Connected employees embody the values of Smart, Kind, Reliable, Teachers, and Learners. We can all see ourselves reflecting these values. They’re documented where people can easily refer to them, almost like a how-to guide to Connected culture. Our values are our set of rules and beliefs that continue to grow and develop.

We have rituals in the company that align with these values and grow our culture organically. Thursday Roundtable allows us to get together with our colleagues to discuss meaningful and deep topics that go beyond small-talk, monthly Lunch & Learns give us insights from a variety of speakers and topics which are highly educational, and morning standup is a great way to get our minds focused on tech and product news or celebrate organizational wins. 

Culture isn’t always about fun and games – nor should it be. There will always be hard choices that you need to make as a company. One continuum you need to think about is to what degree do you want to take on risk? It is essential for a company to have a risk appetite when building a new product or service. Companies should build this into their culture by empowering all employees to take on risks and make meaningful decisions. If an employee fails again and again but tries their best, there has to be an acceptance of their failures so that they aren’t afraid to take risks again. This mindset has to be backed by the company in order for it to be successful. 

Making Culture a Part of Everyday Life

Netflix began in 1997 when VHSes and DVDs were king and streaming was just a dream. Now, it’s one of the world’s leading internet entertainment services (but we didn’t have to tell you that). As with any rapid growth, company culture becomes an increasingly hot topic. To ensure all their employees were on the same page, Netflix created a culture deck back in 2005 and updated it quarterly. In an unprecedented move in 2009, Netflix decided to publish its culture deck online for the public to see. This was quite possibly one of the best recruiting tactics a company could do. Since Netflix went global, they created a major culture deck division. It started off as 128 pages but has since been updated to fit on about 10. Sharing your culture makes sense – people want to know what your culture is. By being honest and deliberate about your culture, it can be an essential strategy to attract and retain talent that will fit into your organization. 

Another great strategy that Netflix uses is role-playing difficult culture scenarios that could happen so when they do happen, you’ve already practiced it and have a solution. Ask yourself, “What would you do if…?” You can learn a lot about how to take your company culture to the next level, it’s a great place to begin. The whole framework when you do these role-playing scenarios uses three decisive actions: Do Nothing, Reprimand, or Fire. All of these choices have consequences but with every scenario, there may come a time where you’ll need to sit with your team and make a decision on whether or not someone’s choices should result in remediation. Although the scenarios you come up with may not happen, you should not disregard them.

Later on, Gib introduced something called the DEL Model; define, edit, and live. 

  1. DEFINE: What are you going to do to define your company culture? Is it well-defined? Make sure the timing is right, how old is your company? How many people are in the company? Who is the owner of establishing company culture? Just look at your employees for clues on how to define it.
  2. EDIT: Over time you will need to edit the definition, you can do this through roleplaying and case studies. Don’t chase the notions of best practices. Most people are hesitant to test on people but don’t be. Just do it! Try everything and see what works.
  3. LIVE: Invent mechanisms. Make your culture and values intertwine by challenging the articulation of the culture. If you see somebody engaging in behaviour that isn’t consistent with the company culture, do something about it. Also, make sure to celebrate all the new milestones, the new hires, etc.

These strategies are not just useful for interpersonal relations or typical “HR situations” – applying these frameworks across the board can help employees reframe how they would typically approach problem resolution in all aspects of their jobs. By creating a strong and empowering culture that teaches employees how to resolve problems through any situation, they are more likely to make stronger decisions in their work.

Continuing to Grow & Communicate Your Culture

Companies should tell everyone, especially their applicants, about their company culture before they join. It would be crazy to think every culture should be the same. Elements that make a company unique given their particular goals and vision should be embraced. Think about the stars in your company, the people who do great work and deliver results. They are key in determining what you should value as a company. Culture needs to be defined, and it needs to be defined early. It also needs to be pressure tested continuously. There are risk-free ways to do so (e.g., via case studies), and companies and leaders should regularly be doing those. 

Gib’s last piece of advice: do not replicate Netflix’s culture. As a matter of fact, don’t replicate any company’s culture; you need to figure that out on your own. As we grow, we’re interested to see how our company culture will continue to be defined. 

If you want to learn how to build a strong team to fit into your strong culture, check out our video with Marty Cagan, founder & product principal at Silicon Valley Product Group.

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