Product Culture Marty Cagan

Lead with Context not Control

There are so many good books available today that try to explain to company leaders the advantages of empowering your people. Some of my current favorites include: Leaders Eat Last, Startup Nation, The Art of Action, Turn the Ship Around, Extreme Ownership, Team of Teams, and Leadership is Language.  I consider each of these inspiring and worth reading.

The reason Chris Jones and I wrote EMPOWERED was to help these leaders understand how strong product companies put these principles into practice in their product and technology organizations.

Those that follow our writing know that at SVPG, we try to share the practices of the best product companies.  One of the challenges in doing that is that we need to untangle the practices as they relate to product, from the cultural characteristics that are more of a reflection of the personalities of the founders.

Recently, the co-founder of Netflix, Reed Hastings, published a book sharing his philosophies on the advantages of empowering your people.  The book is called No Rules Rules, and it’s the newest addition to my list of favorite books on the empowerment topic.

Full disclosure that I have been a very long-time fan of Reed, and then Netflix – their products and their culture.  I profiled their original product manager in INSPIRED.

Reed and I both started our careers as engineers in an applied research lab, then we each started companies working on products for other engineers, and then we each moved to the consumer internet.

I mention this not to put myself in the same league as Reed (I’m not), but just to point out that I share many of his same biases and opinions, especially regarding the harmful effects of too much process, and command and control style management.

One of Netflix’s mantras is “lead with context and not control,” and this is a great summary of the leadership style that I was taught as well.

My favorite story in the book is when Reed describes a situation where one of his managers made what he considered an awful decision.

Reed sat down with the manager, and asked him why he made the decision he did, and Reed realized that the manager had made a very reasonable decision based on the information he had.

The root cause of the bad decision was that Reed and his senior leadership team had not shared enough of the context so that this manager would have been able to make a good choice.

If you want to see what a company that sets the “empowerment dial” to 10 looks like, this book does a good job.  It is definitely provocative, and some people will likely be uncomfortable with a few of his positions, but it will certainly give you a lot to consider.  I will tell you that my experiences with the people that work at Netflix over the years is that it’s not as brutal as may come across in the book.

Keep in mind that some of the practices companies do are there more to define the culture than to drive behavior.

As it applies to a product and technology organization, leading with context takes real effort to do well, and it’s a major responsibility of your product leaders.  But if you want to empower your product teams and push decision making down to the people closest to the problems and the enabling technology, then it’s well worth your time.