I worked with Netflix, and the experience taught me a lot about the idea that process is the enemy of success

Robin Utrecht/Amsterdam/Getty ImagesNetflix CEO Reed Hastings

Red tape, process and bureaucracy. Ask almost anyone about them and they will roll their eyes and say how frustrated they are with the archaic practices in their company.

That’s led most business gurus to advocate the corporate world adapting a “startup mentality” and ditching process in favour of freedom and responsibility for your people. Sounds ideal.

Before I dive in I want to get it out there that I am a process-phobe. As a creatively-minded person I get as frustrated as anyone with bureaucratic and arcane systems which stop things happening, or slow them down to the point of obsolescence. Out with the rules, let anarchy reign.

The irony now is that I worked with Netflix, and now I value process a lot more highly. Let me explain.

Netflix is a company most people would kill to work with. They’re fiercely innovative, forward looking and the global poster child for modern corporate culture with the core policy of giving all its employees “freedom and responsibility.”

Its famous Culture Deck is one of the most celebrated documents to come out of Silicon Valley ever.

When appointed as their Australian strategy and creative partner, I studied that culture bible. But what should have been a dream organisation to have as our client soon descended into organised chaos, through no-one’s fault but a lack of systems.

Simply put, it quickly became apparent they had no process whatsoever. For anything. No process for managing travel, guests, teams, workshops, projects, suppliers, communications or performance. None for WIPs, inductions or workflow. None for dispute resolution or escalation. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

At first it was hard to work out whether process was something to which I simply wasn’t privy, or whether this start-up turned corporate-giant had simply been unable to implement process at a rate suitable to that of its meteoric growth.

Once I became fully immersed in the business I realised the truth. Process was seen as an enemy – a system for weak-willed, vision-lacking losers, who needed “training wheels” to get by in business.

For them, process was seen as a constraint that could only act to slow progress and thwart free-thinking.

Like any tech company they work to tight timeframes, and want everything to be market leading and creative. And that should be a marketer’s nirvana, but without any kind of process in place, it proved to be a nightmare.

Points of contact constantly shifted as people played internal politics, the lack of accountability meant everyone was quick to claim the wins, but weren’t so keen to help with the setbacks. There was a constant internal struggle to control certain budgets, and at times some of the communications struck me as more of a schoolyard approach than that of the most valuable entertainment company on earth.

In the end we parted ways with them after six months, and sad to say, none of our staff were unhappy about it. But I remain perplexed about it. How can a company that has got so much, so right – get something so basic completely wrong?

To address my quandary, I recently attended a conference, where I had the opportunity to quiz Patty McCord – Netflix co-author of their famous cultural blueprint. I asked whether “freedom and responsibility” was in her mind as easy to implement with junior team member as say, older team members.

I used the example of “no set holidays” rules. Patty responded with; “It (freedom and responsibility) took ten years to get right.”

She went on to explain “The hardest thing about implementing that over time was teaching managers about deliverables.”

I have to say, it clarified for me Netflix approach to growth. Achieve deliverables. Look forward. Less emphasis on “how we get there.”

The whole experience got me thinking a lot about process in business. Yes, there are a lot of legacy things from a pre-internet age at many firms that should probably be thrown out. But that doesn’t mean scrapping everything you have in place, or not replacing it with something more fit for purpose.

I think we should be able to operate high growth but also highly communicative business models that properly enable concerns to be addressed, successes, wins to be celebrated and losses to be addressed. If not, where are the foundations and the pathways? What happens when you need something or someone needs something from you? How does the business learn?

In a processless environment Alpha personalities thrive, but what about quiet achievers and introverts? There seems to me a lot more value in making sure all your team feel empowered to make a difference in your business than just a noisy few.

The opposite of process is not unbridled innovation, it’s anarchy. Smart application of process doesn’t have to be rigid or restrictive. In fact, it can ensure work and business is fun, fast-paced and fiercely innovative, when done correctly. It can let you look back and look forward and lay down a path through the ups and downs of doing business. So when it hits hurdles, it doesn’t crash with a thud.

Gavin McDonough is co-founder and managing partner at strategic business consultancy Unthink.

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