Review: Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility

The original Netflix culture deck1 is one of the major pieces of modern Silicon Valley lore. It’s a presentation describing the core tenets the culture at Netflix, a set of aggressive norms rebuking what its authors perceive as ineffectiveness fostered by most other companies. It leans strongly on the professional sports team metaphor—in compensation, expectation of excellence, and subsequently in intolerance of subpar performance. In some sense, it’s the managerial take on Silicon Valley disruption, a revolutionary way to think about how to drive a workforce.

Well, it never quite caught on; beyond Netflix itself, few other tech companies wanted to adapt their principles.

Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility is a book that tries to expand upon and elaborate the tenets of that culture deck. Written by Netflix’s former Chief People Officer, it goes into many of those topics in further detail: vigorous debates, finding the right motivators, honest feedback, hiring & firing, compensation philosophies, etc. The book gets into some of the why behind Netflix’s stakes in the ground, and is peppered with examples of specific individuals through the author’s 14+ year stint there2.

The premise of this powerful Netflix culture is pretty difficult to begin with. As much success as the company has had over these 2 decades, other companies have also been successful and their cultures more readily emulated, whether it’s the stereotypical Google-esque fun office decor, the secrecy of Apple’s product development and tight PR, or even Intel’s system of OKRs for goal management. That said, there are a number of companies that are weaning off of their usage of annual performance reviews, and that’s something that Netflix figured out about itself early on, though I haven’t found many articles that cite the company as their inspiration.

Which means in practice, the data points presented are mostly sampled from Netflix teams and their managers, and so feels more anecdotal than broadly conclusive. It reminds me of Principles, in the sense that the literature provides an insider view into how a successful company operates internally, but it’s questionable whether these practices can be exported. They’re also similar as both seem to emphasize blunt feedback, transparent criticism in service of high performance, where relegating human compassion as a minor afterthought is a wholly acceptable tradeoff. It’s also important to note that some of the perceived success of the examples here are self-affirming, as survivorship bias suggests that those who don’t thrive in these settings wouldn’t stick around anyway.

Maybe it’s just the way I manage people and my own stack ranking of values, but the environment and culture that Powerful describes doesn’t sound like a particularly enjoyable workplace3. And that’s perfectly fine; Netflix is the first to admit that their style of work isn’t for everybody, or even most people. The book does feature some contrarian ideas, and those orthogonal perspectives do provide some nice food for thought.

  1. It looks like they’ve updated it into a full-on manifesto on their jobs page.

  2. Their inclusion is weird; it dates the book to its publishing date as it cites success at startups which are ephemeral, and the vast majority of readers wouldn’t know who these people are so they end up feeling more like literary shoutouts.

  3. Indeed, the author makes sure to emphasize to her employees that the team’s primary and overarching goal is to deliver product to customers.

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