Hiring For Additivity

When I first interviewed at Netflix, I noticed that by and large the folks I met had been at Netflix for a long time. It made me curious, so I asked the question, “how do you think about the risk of echo chambers?” The answer, in short, was “additivity”.

Organizations with long-tenured staff can be at risk of perpetuating existing ideas, unchallenged. The organization pattern matches against things already known, stops learning, and slows growth. Unquestioned ideas and stalled learning lead to stagnation and decline.

Will Larson recently wrote about the flip side of this in the “flying wedge”. The “flying wedge” is when a leader joins a company and imports more people like them. These people then import more people like them, etc., replacing the company from the inside out. The same symptoms occur, and the end is similar.

With stagnation at one extreme, and lift-and-shift culture at the other, what should we do? How do we avoid becoming homogeneous?

Netflix addresses this challenge through a focus on additivity. Additivity refers to the state of being additive, in particular as a new team member to an existing team. Additivity is applicable for both internal and external candidates for a role.

additive n. a substance added to something in small quantities to improve or preserve it

Additivity begins with intention and thoughtfulness from a hiring manager. They define both the requirements for a role as well as experiences or attributes that will add to the team. I liken this to Canada’s cultural mosaic vs. the melting pot of the United States. Evolution is the goal of additivity, not assimilation.

When a company defines a value or a principle, I always look for what it requires saying “no” to. Hiring for additivity can mean saying “no” to a great candidate who doesn’t bring something new to the team. Hiring for additivity means growing with intention.

What does hiring for additivity look like?

Hiring stunning colleagues at Netflix involves a close partnership with recruiting. A part of our recruiting partner’s role is to push us as hiring managers to be thoughtful in hiring. When we open a role, they ask us questions such as:

  • What has the team prioritized when hiring in the past?
  • Where on the team are you over-represented? And how did that over-representation come about? What norms on the team did that over-representation create or reinforce?
  • Where has the team usually hired from?
  • What are some themes of constructive feedback your team has received?

Answering questions like these fosters a meaningful identification of desired additive qualities. It spurs intentionality in both sourcing candidates and designing interview questions.

Several other tools can help identify desired additive qualities for a team.

Every team has a set of needs, or things the team must do to meet its objectives. A simple team survey can surface potential areas of opportunity. It is tempting to ask people to rank their ability against each need, but this is not a productive exercise. I’ve found asking for a self-evaluation of their level of interest in a given need is more effective. This can identify both additivity and individual growth opportunities.

A radar chart is a helpful visualization of responses. In the example above, you can observe the anonymous team responses for 5 team needs. The team needs will often be unique to a given team type.

Some team’s responses may illuminate more obvious areas of additivity than others. In the example above, there is some useful information but there are no glaring gaps.

The survey and radar chart illustrate self-evaluations from the team as inputs. To visualize areas of opportunity, a similar tool called a “team talent map” is useful. I first learned about team talent maps from my former stunning colleague Zhenzhong. A team talent map uses the areas of “team needs” (e.g. Feature Development) to create a graph. Every team is different, so here is an example:

Overlay the current team’s capabilities to visualize where the team is at today. (Pair the data from the team’s input on areas of interest, if you have it, to get a more robust picture.) For example:

Using this, a hiring manager can see some aspects of additivity and what ideal hires would bring to the team.

Extending an offer

When we make an offer to someone to join Netflix, we create an internal document to set context and align. This document includes a description of the candidate’s additive qualities. This last step is a small but important one. It closes the loop and holds us accountable to be considering additivity in all our hires.

Hiring for additivity requires intentionality. It seeks to answer the question “how does this person change us for the better?” It avoids both stagnation and a lift-and-shift cultural change. At Netflix, I’ve observed this approach to be effective. It is a practice I’ll carry with me throughout my career.

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Aaron Lerch

Aaron Lerch

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Life enthusiast. I love people, technology, DR Congo, and @malemberise . Nayebi Lingala. Compute Platform Engineering Manager at @Netflix