"Ask Gib" question: "What's your deepest insight about teamwork?"
Short answer: Teamwork is about knowing & playing your position to deliver results. What it's not: getting along with others or building consensus. Required: healthy debate.
Each month, I answer a few questions, drawing from my experience as VP of Product at Netflix and Chegg (the textbook rental and homework help company that went public in 2013). Today’s answer is essay #57.
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“Ask Gib” question: “What’s your deepest insight about teamwork?”
We’ve all likely had the same experience of watching kids play soccer. When children are young, they play “bunch ball,” but as they grow up they learn to play their positions and engage in play away from the ball.
Teamwork is the coordinated, efficient action of a group of people to deliver results. Too often, however, team members think it means getting along with each other. Consistent with this, a “team player” is defined as someone who works well with others. But highly effective teamwork requires folks who challenge each other.
I find some elements of effective teamwork counter-intuitive:
Rather than require folks to get along, high-performance teams depend on team members who ask hard questions and actively point out when they disagree with each other. As examples, healthy disagreement and “farming for dissent” are essential parts of both Netflix and Amazon cultures.
Most folks think it’s important to have lots of people involved in a decision, but this encourages “bunch ball.” The goal state is “tightly aligned, loosely coupled,” which means organizations unite behind a high-level strategy and loosely update each other as they make independent decisions.
Below, I dig a little deeper into defining your position, avoiding bunch ball, and farming for dissent.
Define your position
Great companies have a strong notion of “Company first, team second, individual third.” These companies encourage employees to consider “What’s best for the company” as they make decisions. Employees approach decisions with a “company first” perspective.
At the individual level, successful organizations can describe each person’s role in precise terms. To illustrate, in 2008 at Netflix, I could articulate the position of each product leader on my team through a single metric for each individual:
Todd Yellin’s personalization role focused on increasing the percentage of members who rated at least 50 movies in their first two months with the service.
Brent Ayrey, who launched streaming in January of 2007, focused on the percentage of members who watched at least fifteen minutes of streaming content in their first month.
Crystal Trexel Ciancutti, who focused on DVD merchandising, defined her role through the percentage of members who added at least six DVDs to their movie list each month.
Meghan Stern simplified the member experience. Her “Day One” metric described the percentage of members who added at least three titles to their movie list during their first session.
Vikram Subramanian, who focused on member self-help, minimized contacts per 1000.
Michael Rubin, who led our “Friends” and social effort, increased the percentage of members who connected with at least one friend.
Neil Rothstein, the non-member product leader who managed the front door of the site, focused on trials/visits to measure the efficiency of new member sign-up.
Each team member understood their discrete role and could demonstrate progress through a single metric. The team did not play bunch ball.
My role as VP of Product was to improve retention, and efforts by my team contributed to retention improvement. My job was to articulate the high-level product strategy, hire talented product leaders, and make product investment decisions to improve monthly retention.
Avoid bunch ball
In 2005 I started a new forum at Netflix: the Quarterly Product Strategy Meeting. This day-long meeting became an essential venue for product leaders to:
Articulate their product strategy
Share results and learning from past AB tests
Outline hypotheses for future tests
The meeting also helped us to decide when to “double down” in certain product areas (e.g. personalization, streaming) or to cut areas where there was little progress (“Friends” & social).
Most employees viewed the meeting as the forum for product and everyone wanted to attend. I invited our head of marketing to the meeting because she had vital consumer insights. I included Reed Hastings, the CEO, as he was highly entrepreneurial and technically savvy. But I chose not to include the content team, which annoyed them. My content peers would “guilt trip” me with questions like, “How can you make decisions which impact the content team without including us?”
Reed was adamant that I not include the content team. But after a year, I placated them by inviting all four exec members. Reed was upset when he addressed me:
“The concept is tight alignment and loose coupling. You are the expert in product. You provide tight alignment through articulation of the high-level product strategy. But if you engage the content team in product decisions you’re guilty of tight coupling, which slows decision-making. Likewise, I don’t want you engaged in content decisions — that’s the content team’s area of expertise. Between product and content, all we need is loose coupling — an occasional update so each team knows what the other team is up to.
The interchange is memorable to me. The result: I never invited the content team to the meeting again.
Most folks believe that an essential part of teamwork is getting along with others. But to be highly effective, especially in product innovation where there’s a high degree of ambiguity as the future is unknown, you need to cultivate healthy debate to isolate the most potent ideas.
Both Amazon and Netflix articulate this concept in their culture decks. Here’s an excerpt from Amazon’s Leadership Principles:
Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit
Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.
When I buckled under pressure from the content team, I was guilty of optimizing for social cohesion. “Disagree and commit” encourages healthy debate about ideas, discourages groupthink, and ensures crisp follow-through.
Netflix’s culture deck strikes a similar chord as it details how to disagree without being disagreeable. It weaves in the concept of “informed captains,” who are responsible for their function — typically VP or Director-level leaders:
If you disagree on a material issue, it is your responsibility to explain why you disagree, ideally in both discussion and in writing. The back and forth of discussion can clarify the different views, and concise writing of the core issues helps people reflect on what is the wise course, as well as making it easy to share your views widely. The informed captain on that decision has the responsibility to welcome, understand, and consider your opinions, but may not agree. Once the captain makes a decision, we expect everyone to help make it as successful as possible. Later, if significant new information becomes available, it is fine to ask the captain to revisit the topic. Silent disagreement is unacceptable and unproductive.
The simple articulation is “debate, decide, and do.” Reed modeled the behavior often by encouraging leaders to debate ideas, and then ask executives to switch their position. This tactic encouraged participants to listen carefully to their adversary’s views so that they could repeat them later. These debates modeled the behavior of how to disagree without being disagreeable.
When I interviewed at Netflix, Reed asked me to detail an incident when I disagreed with someone. He was fishing to see whether I was too consensus-oriented — and never disagreed — and whether I could demonstrate the skill of disagreeing without being disagreeable. And once a decision was made, whether I could commit fully to it, even if I disagreed.
Growing up in a New England family, my parents’ mantra was “good fights make good marriages.” I embraced healthy debate. I was a good fit with the Netflix culture, and the environment felt comfortable. (My parents have now been married sixty years.)
There is so much excellent writing on this topic, especially Todd Yellin’s essay on “farming for dissent,” so I have included links to multiple articles at the bottom of this page. But if you don’t have time for additional reading, focus on these three “go-do’s”:
Define your positions through clear metrics for each team member
Avoid bunch ball through tight alignment and loose coupling, and
Encourage dissenting opinions within your team, but commit to the decision once it’s made.
I hope you found this essay helpful.
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“Why Your Team Might Be Overly Agreeable,” by Todd Yellin, VP Product at Netflix.
“Jeff Bezos on Avoiding Social Cohesion,” Fast Company
“How To Run a Quarterly Product Strategy Meeting,” by Gibson Biddle on Medium.
Hi Gib - this is my most reshared of your articles. I find lots of startups struggle to find the balance between being respectful and nice with their staff and being aggressively focussed on a single goal on the other hand. And they struggle with the concept of loose coupling and tight alignment - the concept is obvious when you've lived it, but really opaque if you haven't lived it. Its also a nice touch to pull in Amazon as well as Netflix - please bring us more examples from great tech companies :-)
Excellent piece and a great year-end read.
My struggle has always been encouraging meaningful debate. I'm fortunate to have learned this in school (the benefits of a classical education?), but sometimes even leading by example doesn't create a culture of open discussion.
I've come to believe that truly effective debate works best within a culture built on trust and objectivity. Without those foundations, debate quickly turns into another case of "the loudest voice wins". As Product Managers, we are uniquely placed to encourage the sharing of divergent ideas from a wide variety of stakeholders in an objective and constructive way and drive a path forward to the desired outcome. As with many things, this is often more of a journey than a destination, but well worth the effort.