Breaking silos at Netflix

What happens when a gargantuan organisation like Netflix builds a massive new business unit? How do you avoid the dreaded ‘silo culture’?

That was the task facing Netflix product manager Kelsey Whelan when she came to Netflix in 2015.

With a background in tech and UX, she arrived at the company when it was ramping up its original-content unit.

In fact, Netflix is on track to spend $8 billion on producing its own content this year alone. It’s a sign that the company is much more interested in creating than licensing – making it the world’s largest studio.

Part of Whelan’s role is to make taking original content from pitch to play as efficient and seamless as possible.

With a whole new unit now part of the business, making sure all units are talking to each other and on the same page is vital to the success of the company as a whole.

That meant Whelan needed to go back to school.

“I had … UX experience, I had coding so I had the technical chops, but I was missing a fundamental understanding of how Hollywood works,” she told an audience at PauseFest yesterday.

“The first thing you should do as a product manager is make sure you have all of those bases covered – so I needed to learn the business side.”

With an understanding of the business side, she began to bridge the gap between units.

Bridging the gap

“On one side you had engineers saying ‘APIs, data architecture, design system’,” said Whelan. “I had to bridge those conversations with the folks saying things like ‘negative pickup, above the line, below the line, and Hollywood.”

“Now I knew both languages, I could start having productive conversations.”

She said one of her major tasks was to create a shared vocabulary so all units could use the same words to say the same things.

But having the conversations between tribes was only one part of the equation.

READ MORE: Building an agile culture

Synthesise, redistribute

With her background in tech and UX, Whelan said she was inclined to write everything down and document as much as she could.

“I wrote these very detailed specs so everyone knew what was going on… I ended up writing memos that were pages long and it turned out directors and VPs at Netflix didn’t have time to read them – and didn’t,” said Whelan.

“So I quickly learned that it matters how you communicate. You need to be extremely mindful of how you communicate to different audiences [within your organisation].”

After all, talking to a content executive and talking to an engineer are two very different experiences – no matter what language you’re speaking.

But with disparate units in the organisation, who makes the decisions?

O Captain, My Captain

As with any decision within a major business, it’s easy to get bogged down not only in power plays between departments but just the weight of information being presented at any one time.

When Netflix ramped up its original content capability, suddenly there was a lot more information to consider when making a decision.

Whelan said it would be a good idea for large organisations to allocate an ‘informed captain’ to have final say on any decision.

“For every significant decision there’s a responsible captain of the ship who makes a judgement call after digesting other people’s views,” said Whelan.

“This is a way to avoid analysis paralysis and decision by committee, which is a hindrance to moving forward at a lot of different companies.”

This is also when all that early work in setting up effective communication between teams comes in handy – if other units can see that you’ve done the work, they’ll trust your judgement.

“It’s really important that you’ve communicated really well along the way so people are confident that you’re informed and trust you to make a good judgement call,” said Whelan.

But she also said it was important to acknowledge when other people had better information than you, and you should trust their judgement over yours.

“Although you may be an informed captain, you need to be aware of when to trust the expert,” said Whelan.

“Sometimes it’s my job to pass the torch to them to keep me informed of any decision.”

READ MORE: Making the hard calls in business