Build a team of iconoclasts
“I fancy myself an iconoclast and an enabler of iconoclasts,” explained Todd Yellin. He aims to build a team that’s not afraid to challenge convention, and values innovation over consensus. “Innovation relies on smashing idols, but to smash those idols, what you need is passion and logic.”
He recalled arriving at Netflix back in 2006, when the online streaming service relied on a five-star rating tool that gave users personalized recommendations for shows and movies. Yellin realized that what people rated highly and what they actually watched were not the same.
“Back in those days, people were going, ‘Yes, I’m gonna give five stars to An Inconvenient Truth and Hotel Rwanda or Schindler’s List, but I’m really going home and watching Billy Madison and Paul Blart Mall Cop.’” He brought this to the attention of his managers, and it reshaped the company’s approach to personalization.
Empower your team
Yellin said that, in 2015, the then-CPO at Netflix had stated in an interview that the company would never allow users to download shows—believing that internet accessibility would become ubiquitous, and the feature would just be a distraction. Yellin was approached by a relatively junior contributor on the consumer insights team, who told him that customers were asking for downloading options. “Toss away hierarchy when it comes to good ideas,” Yellin said. “I felt his passion and I heard his logic, and I thought to myself, ‘Yeah, let’s find out, do some research.’”
It turned out the consumer insights employee was right. Especially in places where the internet is unreliable, users were keen to download shows. Yellin brought the research to his superiors and they started building the feature within a few months.
More recently, when his team was keen to shake things up and re-order of the rows of recommendations that appear for users based on their interests, Yellin was skeptical. But he let his team test the new feature, and found that they were right. “I was thrilled that I was wrong,” he recalled. “Me being wrong in that case means that it was a great example for others to pick up their baseball bats and become iconoclasts, to try new things and drive innovation.”
Drive decision-making down
Rather than making decisions at the highest tiers of the company, Yellin has found that innovation happens when more junior employees can voice their opinions.
At Netflix, he explained, meetings once resembled Jeopardy, where team members were hard-pressed to get a word in (as though they had to be the first to hit a buzzer to speak). They adopted a new format where people have to raise their hands, lending some leverage to more reserved team members. To help those who feel intimidated by speaking aloud at a large meeting, they began to circulate a memo in a Google Doc prior to meetings, where everyone can make comments and share opinions.
This idea is also embraced by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, who, every year or so, asks employees: “What would you do differently if you were CEO?” He then shares a Google Doc where employees can add their responses to the question. “There’s not a fear of putting your ideas out there, even if they’re outrageous—it’s encouraged,” Yellin said.