The Muselet #18: Farming for dissent 

Another nugget from No Rules Rules (yes, I will keep referring to it until you all read it): farming for dissent — figuring out systems to surface people disagreeing with you or having doubts about your plans.

The case described by Reed Hastings (Netflix CEO) was Netflix’ move to separate the DVD rental business from the streaming business in Netflix. They did this by splitting the service in two: a $10 per month Netflix plan would turn into a $8 Quickster (DVD rental) and $8 Netflix (streaming) plan.

This didn’t pan out very well — not only was it more expensive for customers, it was also less practical because they now had to use two separate websites. After the fact, it turned out lots of Netflix employees had had their doubts about this strategy, however none of this surfaced to Reed himself. This resulted in some reflection on Reed’s end, which ultimately manifested in the practice of “farming for dissent”: explicitly surfacing if people agree with things, or have doubts.

Here’s how it works, conceptually:

Whenever there’s a important decision to to be made (and in Netflix there’s always one DRI — Directly Responsible Individual for every area), people get to “vote” on their confidence about the decision, scoring between -10 (highly doubtful) and 10 (very confident). These scores are tracked in a spreadsheet together with the rationale behind them. The purpose is not to average out these scores, or to somehow use it as meta-decision framework. Rather, it’s to give people a more explicit place to voice their concerns. Even those who wouldn’t naturally speak up in, e.g. a meeting.

Ultimately, the DRI takes the decision and owns the result —the votes are just input and can be ignored. However, the data is there, and it is surfaced. 

Of course, this only works if people feel absolutely safe to give this type of honest feedback. If people feel they cannot score an idea low, because of repercussions, this won’t work.

This feeling of safety is a foundational requirement for any to operation properly (although it’s definitely not always there). Here’s a great Simon Sinek talk on the topic of safety. Or, if you have more time: watch Why Leaders Eat Last (45 min, also covering safety).