'Farming for Dissent'

Netflix's attempt to catch the next Qwikster mistake

Rani Molla and Peter Kafka have a new podcast for Vox which dives into Netflix. One fun anecdote regarding Qwikster — yes, the failed DVD-by-mail spin-off with the most fake real name ever — from an article they published to promote the show:

But in Hastings’s narrative, the failure was useful for Netflix’s culture. He thinks that many of his top employees could have told him he was wrong but were too afraid or at least too in awe of their CEO’s former successes to say anything.

“Everyone knows the tale of the self-absorbed, arrogant CEO who doesn’t listen. And there’s an element of that, because we have been so successful at so many things before that,” Hastings told us earlier this year at Netflix’s offices in Los Angeles. “But the more subtle one is that I had been so successful before that most of the executives thought ... ‘But Reed has been right on so many things. I’ll bet he’s right on this one. And I’m just not seeing it.’”

Easy to say all of this in hindsight, of course, but I think it’s smart to realize that it wasn’t just that people didn’t want to push back against the boss, it’s perhaps that the boss had been right so many times before that they just trust he would be again.

After the debacle, Hastings instituted “farming for dissent,” a formal practice where employees are supposed to run their big ideas by colleagues and have them tell you candidly — on a Google Doc that’s open for everyone to see — what’s wrong with it. It’s considered integral to the company that your coworkers tell you what they really think of your idea, even if — perhaps especially if — you’re their boss.

This is great. Exactly in line with something I wrote several years ago about the need for a “VP of Devil’s Advocacy” (itself, not an entirely new concept, of course). That was around Amazon’s failed Fire Phone — which also seemed like an obvious mistake from the get-go to many of us on the outside, but inside, they seemingly couldn’t see it. Or maybe they were just betting on Jeff Bezos to be right again. Which is why you need to push for the downside scenarios and dissenting opinions.