Monday, October 3, 2011

The Giant Hairball of Complexity

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If you're like me, you're fascinated by all the coverage Netflix is getting lately. Normally when there's a kerfuffle at one of the anointed tech companies, I have a hard time paying attention. Latest iPhone prototype "accidently" left in a bar somewhere? Publicity stunt. Facebook changing everything again? Good. Maybe now it will start making sense to me.

But with Netflix it's different. I use Netflix. I love Netflix. I suppose Netflix is to me what Apple is to so many iPad and iTunes users, except with Netflix I've never felt like I was surreptitiousness playing with the cool kids' toys while they weren't looking. My Netflix Queue is mine, and through it I can be whatever I want to be.

So when Netflix raised its prices 60% and then decided to split its DVD delivery service off from its video streaming service, you would've thought I would have had a strong negative reaction. Like so many others. But I have to be honest. My reaction in both cases was: What? Oh, okay. I can handle that. I mean, I was way more upset when they took away the ability to manage multiple queues. Remember that?

What fascinates me about the latest Netflix controversy is not the rebellion it has created among Netflix users, or the company's efforts to better communicate with and placate its customers. What fascinates me is what it might be saying about vision and leadership.

I've read a lot of opinion pieces on the situation. But here's the best one so far, written by Adam Richardson of frog design. In it, he credits Netflix for quite obviously looking at an endgame 5-10 years into the future. He quotes Netflix CEO Reed Hastings as saying:

"For the past five years, my greatest fear at Netflix has been that we wouldn't make the leap from success in DVDs to success in streaming. Most companies that are great at something — like AOL dial-up or Borders bookstores — do not become great at new things people want (streaming for us) because they are afraid to hurt their initial business. Eventually these companies realize their error of not focusing enough on the new thing, and then the company fights desperately and hopelessly to recover. Companies rarely die from moving too fast, and they frequently die from moving too slowly."

And to illustrate the point, Richardson includes a graphic he drew five years ago, a tongue-in-cheek "timeline" of pivot points for a frog design client in the TV business:

Richardson says:

Half-jokingly it made the point that there is a giant hairball of complexity, consolidation and confusion that the industry is going to have to go through, but if you can survive that, the obvious end state will be that any piece of media will be available whenever an individual wants, wherever they are, on any device they like.

Which leads me to my own thought-provoking questions about the organization I lead and the challenges I'm facing on a daily basis. How much of what I'm doing, I wonder, is focused on my own giant hairball of complexity, and how much is focused on the endgame that will inevitably present itself when all those kinks are worked out?

Pick your industry or profession. There are trends obvious for all to see. Generational change, social networking, for-profit competition--these are some of the changes that are impacting every association. There are others, and some are unique to individual environments, but whatever they are, right now they seem all tangled up into a giant hairball and, as a result, some of us are busy trying to pick that hairball apart and straighten out all the threads in a way that makes sense for our own organization.

Stop. Rather, keep your eyes on the far end of Richardson's chart--the endgame that is obvious to any intelligent person that looks at the situation. For Netflix, that endgame is "any video content in history available anytime, on any device," and that's what Reed Hastings is playing for. He needs to keep current subscribers happy, yes, but not at the expense of not being positioned for the subscribers of that future end state.

How is your organization any different?


  1. Good post Eric.

    I do think a lot of the focus is on the "hair ball" and overwhelmed by the options, technology, and change....that's the case both for and not-for profit worlds. Isn't the end game similar to Reeds just has two parts....1) create engaging, compelling and relevant information/content/resource and 2) be able to deliver that content to members and the world anytime and on any device.

    We do know that there will continue to be options, technology and change – and it impacts both creating and sharing of information….so two things seem to make sense to me….stay connected to members and the world on meeting their needs and make sue your organization has the structure to support change.

    For the record – I enjoy Netflix too. I think Richardson should stay confident, listen and adapt as needed, but stay on course to see his vision to the end.

  2. Thanks for the comment, David. I think the lesson of the hairball and the endgame can be exercised on many levels in the organization. You can play it out at the mission level, but it also works as a thought process for individual projects or specific strategic objectives. We get so wrapped up in responding to the moment, we fail to ever define, much less keep our eyes on the endgame.

  3. The inability to stay focused on the distant future is one of the consistent shortcomings I see in the association world. I don't know if the volunteers terms of office cause staff and elected officers alike to think in shorter increments, but it's the rare group that seems to consistently be thinking 3, 5, 10 years down the road.

  4. I can't tell you how much I appreciate this post, Eric. I think you nailed it on the head with making sure to stay close to members, but as Richardson is experiencing it, also having the commitment and vision to see to members' future needs.

  5. Thanks, Jeffrey and Kiki. I'm glad the post resonated with you. It's hard work keeping an eye on that future end state while you're managing your way through the hairball, but in the association world, it's one of the best reasons for having a strategically-oriented board. If they're down in the weeds with you, the best you'll ever have is short-term success.