WHAT’S YOUR ‘NORTH STAR?’: What Thais Can Learn from Netflix—Part 2 (Series on Thai Values 4.0)

Apr 21, 2021

Larry S. Persons, PhD

What’s Your ‘North Star?’

To embark on any journey, it’s a good idea to know where you are trying to go. Here’s our direction: “How can we contextualize Netflix culture to Thai culture in such a way that it fuels unbounded creativity and innovation?”

At first glance this might look like an impossible journey.

The book No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer, shows what a modern business innovation engine looks like. The story is inspiring but also disturbing when read from a Thai perspective. The Netflix culture of talent density, complete candor, and decentralized decision-making is so starkly different from traditional Thai organizations that it feels like a slap in the face.

In other words, there is a very high risk that any Thai reader will quickly dismiss the merits of this book as being irrelevant to Thai ways. And that would be a shame.

That’s why Thais are my target audience in this series. If you’re not Thai, welcome aboard, but make sure you point your Thai colleagues to my blogs. Thanks.

If you, the reader, are Thai—especially a Thai business leader—I ask for your trust and your patience as I argue how insights from the Netflix book are highly relevant to our aspirations for Thailand’s economic future.

In my previous blog, I noted that Thailand 4.0 is a vision for a more agile form of growth based on technology, creativity, and innovation. That’s problematic. Modern Thai culture still tends to reward conformity, hierarchy, and tradition, whereas business agility, you see, thrives on their opposites—rapid experimentation, decentralized leadership, and thinking outside the box.

That is why we will be peeking behind the curtain at Netflix: the culture it promotes, the types of ideas it encourages, the kind of workforce it attracts, the way leaders lead, and the secrets to their success at being so highly innovative.

We will also squarely face how day-to-day life at Netflix clashes with deeply entrenched Thai cultural values. We must do this if we are to discover novel ways to bring the two approaches into harmony. The lessons we’ll learn together will hopefully point the way forward, especially for businesses in Thailand attempting to instill a culture of innovation but struggling to achieve the desired results from their personnel.

The disparities between Netflix culture and Thai culture are dramatic, but with a few modifications, we will see that the Netflix model can help us transform Thai organizations to be much more innovative. The trick, as always, is not to fight the current but redirect it.

I have some good news. Certain aspects of Thai culture already contain the seeds of change. They are deep below the surface, but if nurtured these seeds can grow into radically new directions.

credit image:  http://bit.ly/1PZaQhY

Obstacle One

Kong Qiu—or Confucius, as most of us know him—was born in 551 BCE in Lu, now in Shandong province, China. He is China’s most famous teacher, philosopher, and political theorist, whose ideas continue to shape not only China but most modern Asian cultures as well, including Thai culture.

And though this great man has been dead almost 2,500 years, his view of a just and harmonious society stands in the way of stimulating greater innovation in Thai organizations.

Confucian philosophy emphasized personal and governmental morality, correct relationships, justice, kindness, and sincerity. Its primary purpose was to achieve its most highly prized goal—social harmony.

So far you should be sensing strong themes of collectivism. But the core values of his philosophy also set the table for an entrenched hierarchy.

Kong Qiu preached reciprocity or responsibility (renqing) as something that extends beyond filial piety and involves the entire network of social relations. Social harmony comes, in part, from every individual knowing his or her place in the natural order and playing that part well. Kong Qiu maintained that there were five critical relationships in Chinese society. The ‘Five Bonds’ were emperor and subject, father and son, husband and wife, elder brother and younger brother, and friend and friend.

Of these five relationships, all but one (friend to friend) points to the moral superiority of hierarchy. The second person in each pairing is expected to show deep respect and even submission to the first. Confucius strongly believed in the importance of inferiors listening to and obeying superiors.

This foray into philosophy is not a digression. Not at all. As a ‘face’ scholar, I can tell you that modern Thai rules of ‘facework’ are still deeply soaked in Confucian philosophy. To challenge them in any way—to suggest that our bright new world needs to wrestle free from the grip of Confucian morality—is to pick a fight that you can easily lose.

But there is a silver lining. The worldview of Confucianism rests upon the belief that human beings are fundamentally good, teachable, improvable, and perfectible through personal and communal endeavor, especially self-cultivation and self-creation.

Wow. Now that gets my attention. The journey of Thai organizations into resilient creativity and innovation will require that certain Thais, at least, be teachable and improvable: empowered to cultivate and recreate themselves.

Obstacle Two

The writers of No Rules Rules make a powerful assertion: “With the growth in importance of intellectual property and creative services, the percentage of the economy that is dependent on nurturing inventiveness and innovation is much higher and continually increasing. Yet most companies are still following the paradigms of the Industrial Revolution that have dominated wealth creation for the last three hundred years” (271).

credit image: https://schoolshistory.org.uk/topics/british-history/industrial-revolution/

When Reed Hastings pens the words “most companies” in the above paragraph, he could just as easily have written “most Thai companies.” The popular ‘command and control’ approach so typical of most Thai organizations is a relic of the high-volume, low-error manufacturing of past eras, yet it still dominates the leadership assumptions of most organizations, not just Thai organizations. Thais have joined billions of people around the world in embracing an approach to management that is a vestige of a bygone era, dating back as far as the Industrial Revolution that began in Britain in 1760. That’s 260 years ago!

The goal of organizations during that revolution was to minimize variation. This approach fits well with the collectivism of Thailand, by the way, where often the goal is to “fit in” with the ingroup, to never stand out from your peers (even if you’re standing out in a good way).

But the goal of creative companies today is to maximize variation. This is a categorically different goal. “The biggest risk,” says Reed, “isn’t making a mistake or losing consistency; it’s failing to attract top talent, to invent new products, or to change direction quickly when the environment shifts. Consistency and repeatability are more likely to squash fresh thinking [and] mistakes, while sometimes painful, help the organization to learn quickly and are a critical part of the innovation cycle” (271-272).

The Digital Revolution is now requiring starkly different ways of leading and managing. It’s just that some of us have been sleeping. We’ve been unaware that circumstances are pleading with us to upset the apple cart, to rock the boat, to make waves, to challenge the status quo, to step out of our comfort zones, to practice culture-making not just culture-following, to give ourselves the right to be courageous for the sake of fresh innovation and for the joy that lies before us.

Some of You are Off the Hook

Netflix’s ‘North Star’ is building a company that can adapt quickly as unforeseen opportunities arise and business conditions change.

What’s your ‘North Star?’ That’s a pivotal question.

Not every industry or sector of the economy needs to be rocked by the Netflix book. Not every organization needs to upend the ways they’re doing things to embrace the largely American-centric culture of Netflix. In fact, some should not.

Netflix itself has pockets of the company where safety and error prevention are the primary goal. “When a mistake would lead to a disaster,” Reed admits, “rules and process isn’t just nice to have, it’s a necessity” (270).

Here are some good diagnostic questions:

  • Are you working in an industry where your employees’ or customers’ health or safety depends on everything going just right? (If yes, choose rules and process.)
  • If you make a mistake, will it end in disaster? (If yes, choose rules and process.)
  • Are you running a manufacturing environment where you need to produce a consistently identical product? (If yes, choose rules and process.)

So, if you’re in the business of ‘counting beans’ or error-prevention, ‘command and control’ will probably continue to work just fine. In fact, you may want to turn a deaf ear. The last thing we need is a commercial airline pilot with a propensity for skipping safety protocols, a brain surgeon who ignores best practices in the name of creativity, or an auto-glass manufacturing foreman who is cavalier about safety measures in the name of greater efficiency. Let me be clear. If you are in the business of error-prevention, I may not be talking to you.

But if you are becoming increasingly aware that times have changed, that markets are volatile, that consumer appetites are shifting at an alarming rate, that you must pivot and quickly if you are going to stay relevant—not to mention solvent—then keep tracking with me. If you are alarmed because business units in your organization lack the ability to think freshly or pivot quickly to lightning-quick changes in the market and consumer values, if you are feeling like all your creative juices are trapped in a box, if you would like to invent new ways of solving old problems, if you are spending more time managing the sensitive egos of your bosses than you are using your creative gifts, if you see what you want but your own culture is in the way, it would be foolish for you to NOT to track with me in this series. There is much to learn, and I’m speaking to myself as much as I’m speaking to you.

On Second Thought

But be careful how fast you give my words a pass.

Every industry needs to innovate to keep up with the present, breathless speed of change. To stay relevant and solvent, to ‘work smarter’ in the today’s global business environment, every organization needs to grant freedom to pockets of the organization to think outside the box, to challenge the status quo, and yes, even to challenge the assumptions of top management.

And don’t stop listening simply because you’re in manufacturing. You may be in the R&D wing of that industry and the Netflix approach is quite relevant to your innovative aspirations. Even if you are employed in a factory, many plant managers would be thrilled for you to be more proactive versus reactive, so that you add true value by offering fresh ideas about rules and process.

If you’re leading a strongly hierarchical organization that will never repent of its ‘command and control’ habits, it still might be good to listen in. Why?

The microcultures of many Thai organizations love to shame anyone who fails. Too many leaders have fallen into the habit of treating every hiccup, every glitch, every mistake, and every failure as an awful tragedy. They don’t give their people room to try on their own, fail on their own, and learn from those failures, and one reason is this: when a leader’s team fails it can easily feel like a personal loss of face for that leader. And face loss is anathema for most Thai leaders. It is THE great enemy.

An Invitation

The Netflix book is clearing the fog for us. My fellow Thais, there is a choice before us. Will we maintain the status quo by leading with ‘command and control’ through centralized decision-making with lots of rules and process? Or will we lead by implementing microcultures of freedom and responsibility that choose speed and flexibility?

It would be a mistake to interpret this Netflix book as a mere case of cultural imperialism. Netflix has been humbled by their launch into 190 plus countries across the globe. They’re finding out that their bright, shiny ideals do not automatically transfer well cross-culturally, so they’re adjusting. They are learning to calibrate their communication so that it feels helpful to the receiver and is not rejected simply because of form. With Asian cultures they’re learning to be friendlier and less direct, to avoid casting blame, to soften messages, to add smiling emojis 🤪, to ask questions, and to show curiosity about the other person’s culture. They’re striving to be humble and curious—to remember to listen before they speak and learn before they teach.

Netflix has taken a step towards us. They have flexed. They admit they’ve got a lot to learn. Now it’s our turn.

The healthiest ‘command and control’ Thai organizations are like a well-practiced symphony orchestra. Everyone knows his place, and everyone has his eyes on the conductor. There is synchronization but very little creativity.

Creativity is birthed along the edges of chaos.

If you like perfectly coordinated symphony music, jazz can sound chaotic. But it isn’t. In jazz, musicians are simply staying true to the structure of a song but taking great freedom to improvise. That’s music, too—a kind of music that can teach us how to structure our organizations to pivot with more speed, dodge irrelevance, and become sources of innovation and inspiration, not just for Thailand, but for the whole world.

So, what kind of music do YOU want to play? Classical, or jazz?

The Thailand 4.0 model of economic development relies on innovation as an engine for growth. In this series of blogs, I argue that certain aspects of deep Thai culture must be transformed for this strategic shift to succeed.