That Will Never Work

That Will Never Work: The Birth of Netflix and the Amazing Life of an Idea  by Marc Randolph (September 2019, Little Brown & Co. 336 pages).

In this book, equal parts origin story, startup manifesto, and leadership manual, author Marc Randolph recounts how Netflix grew from an idea bandied about in a beaten-up Volvo to a $194B global behemoth.  Listening to the book on Audible lends an added layer of depth as Randolph does the narration. The listener can experience the story as a conversation, hearing Randolph’s intonations, frustrations, humor, and jubilance as he speaks of the ups and downs of pursuing his passion while also discovering his own limitations.   

For military service members and veterans, Randoph’s tale offers three valuable imperatives: create your origin story, embrace the startup manifesto, and lead with self-awareness and vision.

The importance of an (origin) story.  

Nearly everyone has heard the tale of Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings coming up with the idea for the company after getting slapped with a $40 Blockbuster late fee for Apollo 13 and thinking surely there must be a better way! Of course, this isn’t actually how it happened. iin fact, Netflix originally had late fees itself. But, as Randolph notes, the idea behind Reed’s oft-repeated story is true. To tell a story–to sell a story–requires distilling the ideas behind it to their simplest essence. For Netflix, the late fee anecdote was effective because it communicated two things to investors and customers: Blockbuster was failing its customers and providing a subpar customer experience. Most notably, the late fee anecdote was something that the investors to whom Hastings was pitching could easily grasp and understand. As Randolph states “epiphanies are rare. And when they appear in origin stories, they’re often oversimplified or just plain false. We like these tales because they align with a romantic idea about inspiration and genius.”

Whether you’re a lifer or a transitioning veteran, you need to find your story–what makes you tick and what makes you unique.  This requires periodic introspection and soul-searching to distill the narrative arc of your life to its essence.  

The ability to succinctly and simply communicate your story is a skill which isn’t normally emphasized until service members transition to the civilian world and hear they need to work on their “elevator pitch.”  This oversight does a huge disservice in a career field where jobs change every two to three years and where members report to two or three bosses during the same period.  Good commanding officers, department heads, chiefs, and division officers will typically sit down with new subordinates and ask them “tell me about yourself.”  What normally follows is a meandering chronological conversation centered around past duty stations and perhaps vague career aspirations.  With 1.3 million people in the U.S. military there are hundreds of these conversations happening everyday and hundreds of sailors, marines, soldiers, and airmen are STRIKING OUT WHEN IT MATTERS MOST.  These initial conversations are the opportunity to tell the story of you–to sell yourself–to communicate not only the unique value you bring to your organization but where that tour of duty fits in with the narrative arc of your life!  

Randolph provides a simple way to start: write down one or two of your favorite jobs/projects and one or two of your worst.  Ask why the stand out in your memory? 

When you check-in at your next job and your commanding officer says: “tell me about yourself,” you’ll stand out. Instead of a boring chronological rundown of acronyms and dates, you’ll tell your stories and link them to the impact they’ve had on your life and demonstrate how you can contribute to your company/command/organization.  

Startup Manifesto (A Bias for Action)

For transitioning veteran entrepreneurs, the utility of  Randolph’s startup insights is clear.  Active duty service members would also do well to approach new commands, new projects, new wicked problems with his same startup mentality.  

Randolph’s most salient advice is to have a bias for action. As he explains, “the most important step that anyone can take to turn their dreams into reality is a simple one: You just need to start.”  With tours of duty normally capped at two or three years, every service member has little time to waste in preparing for their next tour. Ideally, members will check-in to their new command, tell their story and learn as much as they can to identify opportunities for innovation, paying particular attention to “impossible problems.”  These innovation roadblocks are seldom identified as “impossible problems” outright. Instead, they are cloaked with authoritative declaimers such as “we have to do it this way” or “we always do it this way” or “it can’t be done that way” or “it’s against policy.” Randolph notes that overcoming these roadblocks requires: focus and “creative ideation” (i.e., that is, surrounding yourself with the right team).  

Embracing a startup mentality will be a challenge for many in military leadership positions as it requires an expansion and fine-tuning of one’s risk management. The military bureaucracy often misses out on a huge “startup” opportunity: harnessing the fresh influx of ideas and perspectives that comes with a large swath of new personnel arriving  and departing every summer. Commanders must encourage new arrivals to challenge the status quo and identify opportunities for innovation.  Here, the military unit and organizational commanders have a much more difficult task. They don’t have the same hiring luxury that a startup or private company has.  A squadron commander doesn’t get to pick or hire his  O2s, O4s, E5s and E9s (many of whom entered the Navy decades earlier). So Randolph’s observation that “real innovation comes not from top-down pronouncements and narrowly defined tasks.” He explains, “It comes from hiring innovators focused on the big picture who can orient themselves within a problem and solve it without having their hand held the whole time.” Commanders must focus on how to foster and nurture innovators in their unit. Note: for more on the specifics of implementing this see David Marquet’s Turn the Ship Around.

A great first step for every commander would be to print out Randolph’s summary advice on innovation and hand it to every new check-in: 

“What do they all say? That will never work. By now, I hope you know what my answer to that line is. Nobody Knows Anything. I only get to write this book once. And I’d feel like I missed an opportunity if I ended this story without giving you some advice. The most powerful step that anyone can take to turn their dreams into reality is a simple one: you just need to start. The only real way to find out if your idea is a good one is to do it. You’ll learn more in one hour of doing something than in a lifetime of thinking about it. So take that step. Build something, make something, test something, sell something. Learn for yourself if your idea is a good one. What happens if your idea doesn’t work? What happens if your test fails… You have to learn to love the problem, not the solution. That’s how you stay engaged when things take longer than you expected.”

This long quote captures all the central elements for an innovator: take the first step, prototype, act, embrace failure, and most of all: love the problem.  Are there limits to prototyping and embracing failure in a military unit?  Yes, of course–certain activities within a unit may have life or death consequences with no margin for prototyping.  A commander must acknowledge those limits as the exception, though, and make innovation the rule.

Leading with Self-Awareness and Humility

That Will Never Work reveals several key points that any leader will find useful: self-awareness, humility, and vision.  

Self awareness

In Randolph’ case, self-awareness and humility are inextricably linked.  Central to his success was a marked self-awareness that enabled him to humbly accept his own limitations and take criticism in stride.  Early on in his memoir Randoph shares the conversations he would have with Reed Hastings on their daily commute into Pure Atria (a software company that Reed ran).  Each conversation carried a similar cadence–namely, Randolph pitching his latest startup idea (e.g., customized baseball bats) and Hastings dissecting his every assumption and explaining why it would never work.  Randolph never took this blunt criticism to heart and instead used it to sharpen his intellect and analytical skills.

Humility

One of these conversations would evolve into Netflix with Randolph serving as the CEO and Hastings as the main investor.  Randolph would spend the next two years pouring every waking hour into building the company from the ground up.  With Netflix’s progress stalling two years later, though, Hastings sat down Randolph and told him that while he had done a great job getting the company started, he didn’t have faith in his capabilities as a CEO to guide the scale of growth. He then continued with an in-depth analysis of all of Randolph’s missteps, mistakes, and short-comings of late.  Hastings closed by proposing that he step in as CEO and that Randolph stay on as president.  After Randoph’s fury died down he realized, of course, that Hastings was right.  Randolph was a creative who excelled at building teams, establishing a culture, and launching “an idea from the back of an envelope.” But beyond that initial stage, the company needed someone with the strategic vision and fundraising acumen to grow and scale Netflix. Randolph had the humility to acknowledge his deficits and weaknesses.

As military leaders, we need the courage and “radical honesty” of Hastings to step in and intervene when those under our command need help.  It’s important to note, however, that Hasting’s blunt assessment was only possible because he had built up a bank of relationship capital with Randolph over years.  That capital gave him the freedom to hold nothing back knowing they had a relationship and friendship that could weather his feedback. In most military units, there’s not the same longevity so a commander would do well to temper the intensity of their criticism, at least initially.  

More often than not, though, we are likely to be on the receiving end of such “radical honesty” during our careers.  Investing in self-awareness throughout your career can prepare you for these difficult conversations since ideally you’ll already be aware of your weaknesses and shortcomings. An easy way to start building self-awareness is by taking psychometric tests (e.g., Meyers-Briggs, Hogan Personality Assessment, 16PF, etc.). There’s much debate as to which is most useful–an easy answer is the most useful test is the one that you learn from. Use the test results as a starting point for discussion with trusted friends and then seek out regular feedback at work.  Just going through this process will also build humility as you’ll become acutely aware of your weaknesses. Note: for more on humility read John Dickson’s Humilitas.

Vision

Finally, That Will Never Work offers insight on the vision required to lead an organization.  At the heart of this vision is focus.  In deciding to abandon all the peripheral Netflix projects (namely DVD sales and a la carte rentals) in pursuit of solely a subscription service, Randolph noted: “Focus. It’s an entrepreneur’s secret weapon.”  Wielding this type of focus is much akin to using a knife in trimming. Everything that is not the most important and essential thing must be cut away.  Ask how many of the hours in your day are spent on the most important thing?  This question falls in line with the 80-20 principle, namely that 80% of your achievement is produced by 20% of your time. That’s an embarrassing amount of hours each day spent unfocused. Note: if you’re interested in remedying that disparity see Cal Newport’s Deep Work).  

When a leader has such clarion focus it becomes paramount that employees understand the leader’s vision and end goals completely and have the freedom to determine the best way to get there while also understanding their responsibility to their team.  At Netflix this was called being “loosely coupled but tightly aligned.” A focused leader will not have the time nor the inclination to micromanage their team–Randolph hit the nail on the head when he observed that “people love to be trusted.” Trust is the oil that makes innovation possible and which propelled Netflix to the $194B powerhouse it is today.

Rules for Success

In closing, I’d be remiss not to include Marc Randolph’s rules for success.  Passed down from his father, these guidelines speak volumes as to the secret of Randolph’s success.   

  1. Do at least 10% more than you were asked
  2. Never, ever, present as fact opinions about things you don’t know. 
  3. Be courteous and considerate always, up and down.
  4. Don’t knock, don’t complain, stick to serious constructive criticism.  
  5. Don’t be afraid to make fact-based decisions.
  6. Quantify where possible.
  7. Be open-minded but skeptical.
  8. Be prompt.
Related Books:

Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership by John Dickson

Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders by David Marquet

No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention by Reed Hastings and ErinMeyer

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

Report to Pentagon on Culture of Flag, General Officers Across Services

Star Gazing: Why Do We Have So Many Flag Officers?


This book review was contributed by Jack Kruse, a Navy Foreign Area officer living with his beautiful wife and 5 amazing kids in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  He is currently reading a novel and poem from every country in Africa and plans to write a book about it tentatively titled Reading the Continent: A History in Stories. He’s documenting that process at his decade-old blog: www.fuuo.blogspot.com He can be contacted through his Linkedin profile.  

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