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Mistakes Are OK as Long as We Learn from Them

Oli Petry

Director Partner Experience Lifecycle at Netflix

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Problem

Through my career, I went from product management roles to more technical marketing roles, and then from product management to an EM role. I had encountered many mediocre or even bad managers in my career. It took me a lot of time to realize why I liked some managers and not the others. After working with several of them I arrived at a conclusion that I trusted and respected those managers who were aware of their limitations and didn't pretend to know it all. As I personally matured, I became more comfortable with the things I didn't know. I also understood that mistakes are an integral part of our work and that we should learn from them.

Actions taken

Every time a new team member joins us, or even during our regular team meetings, I would always make one thing crystal clear -- when you are on my team I need you to make intelligent choices. I have to be confident that you made that choice thinking through all the implications and after spending enough time considering what is the best choice. Whether your decision is different from mine or whether it is right or wrong, doesn't really matter. I would be supportive as long as I am confident that you have considered all the choices and have selected the best one. However, I would be upset if I learned that you acted carelessly or in haste when making your choice. We can change properties that impact 200-300 Million devices all at once. My team is entitled to make these changes and I need to know that every one of my team members will be able to make these choices independently. There are times when I won't be able to approve these changes and I have to be certain that my team members are capable of acting on their own. If someone repeatedly makes mistakes, I would offer him/her to brainstorm and go through all the data together and be there to ask clarifying questions. I try not to question a decision but to question a process that resulted in that decision. I would encourage a discussion among team members by asking, Has someone else looked at things from a different angle? or Who else should we have talked to before making that decision?

Lessons learned

  • My guiding principle is: I will support you as long as I am confident that you made your choice thinking through all the implications and after spending enough time considering what is the best choice. This principle allows me to straightforwardly ask Have you thought about this?, Who else did you talk to? or What other areas are impacted and were these people aware?
  • People have to be able to make decisions independently. This is especially true for startups where everyone must act quickly and sensibly. It is important to encourage this independence by teaching people to think through the consequences of their actions and to evaluate choices they are confident about.
  • You can do post mortems with either one engineer or with the whole team. During postmortems, you should go through every available data and dissect all the decisions as you try to understand what you (or anybody else) could have done better. The goal of the process is to improve decision-making and not to attack any particular person. It is important to focus on what can be done better instead of pointing to mistakes.

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Oli Petry

Director Partner Experience Lifecycle at Netflix


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