Before Reed Hasting took the helm at Netflix, he founded Pure Software. Four years later, rapid growth and success led to a merger with a company called Atria. The resulting company, Pure Aria, was mediocre at best.
While Pure Software was operationally successful, it struggled with culture because it was too bureaucratic. It was obsessed with creating mistake-proof processes.
As Hastings explained during a TED conference in Vancouver, “We were trying to dummy-proof the system, and eventually only dummies wanted to work there.” That culture carried over to Pure Atria.
Pure Atria was successful at one thing: eliminating conflict. While that sounds like a great goal, it will actually lead to disaster. Here’s why.
Eliminating conflict within an organization or between people means that the first decision has to be the best decision, and that’s rarely the case. No conflict means that decisions and ideas won’t be challenged.
The result will be that your team will stop contributing. It won’t take long for everyone to realize that, regardless of what leadership says, opinions really don’t matter. A leader who doesn’t invite dissent will find himself surrounded only by people who agree. And I’ve never met any one person who has all the answers.
Encouraging conflict, the dissection of ideas, will lead to better ideas and more sharing of information within and between departments.
It’s important to note that there’s a big difference between tearing ideas down and tearing people down. Ideas should be thoroughly challenged and dragged through what-if scenarios. That kind of conflict results in better, more robust ideas that, when implemented, advance the organization.
Since ideas are naturally attached to people, there’s a link to the individual, but it should never get personal. As long as you’re focused on the idea and how it advances your mission, it’s all good.
If you’re a leader, don’t fall into the trap of worrying about your win-loss record. I know of several people who view disagreement as a challenge to their authority. They care about their perceived image more than the organization’s results, although they’ll vehemently deny it. They quickly put a dissenter into his place and squash any notion that they are not in charge. This behavior has no place in any organization.
I once worked with a marketing manager who got incredibly defensive when anyone suggested an improvement. He would rant and accuse the contributor of not understanding business. It wasn’t pretty.
But defensiveness isn’t always overt. One particular IT professional I worked with would listen politely and nod to suggestions. He would always respond, “That’s interesting. I’ll see if we can make it work.” He never did. In the two years I worked with him, I never saw a suggestion from someone else materialize. Both of these people eventually failed and were terminated. And they blamed everyone else for attacking them and not understanding how smart they were.
Hastings learned a lot from his days at Pure Software. When he joined Netflix, he changed his tact completely. There, he established a culture focused on communication, discussion and, yes, conflict.
A piece of this culture is the internal communication policy. Workers across the company are given updates on a wide range of Netflix's projects, not just the ones in their department. Everyone gets all the information. This is an invitation for discussion, and it’s proved effective.
As Hastings says, “I find out about big decisions made all the time that I had nothing to do with.”
And that’s a good thing.
Scott Cochran is the president of Spartanburg Methodist College. He has a combined 30 years’ experience in business and higher education.