How High Should We Set the “Override” Bar?


I recently attended the 2014 Agile Conference in Orlando and really enjoyed my time there. One of my favorite sessions was the “Netflix Organizational Structure: Freedom, Responsibility, Impact, and Agility” talk presented by Roy Rapoport.

I found the presentation full of great ideas, but one stood out especially — the concept of a manager’s “Override Bar”. Roy explained that Netflix optimizes its culture for innovation first, hires the best people it can across the board, and largely trusts them to choose and plan their own work. But… what do you do as a manager when your team wants to work on the wrong thing?

Roy’s approach is to ask two questions:

  • Am I absolutely sure that a proposed project will fail?
  • If it fails, will it present an unbearable expense?

The answer must be “yes” to BOTH questions in order to invoke an override and ask the team to work on something else. (To qualify as an “unbearable expense,” Roy suggested that a project would typically require a quarter or more of a person’s time).

This is a very high bar. An expensive idea that might work isn’t overridden. An idea that is sure to fail is also allowed if the overall impact to the team is manageable. I found this wonderfully concise set of guidelines to be very powerful.

The Dangers of Overriding Ideas

I’ve worked in the industry long enough to have been “overridden” plenty of times, and I can’t say I’ve ever enjoyed the experience. My gut reaction is to think: “I’m not trusted, my ideas aren’t valued, and I don’t have the autonomy to pursue the most important work I could be doing.” I talk myself down from this ledge and do my best to put things in context, but I rarely find myself more enthusiastic and motivated after being hit with an override.

I’m sad to say that I’ve also “overridden” other people’s ideas. When I have, I don’t find that I’ve built trust, learned much from the exchange, or encouraged my team to bring new ideas to the table. I generally feel that I’ve deflated the balloon – that folks on the team are less invested in the work and less likely to propose divergent ideas going forward.

Exercising Restraint

If you are in the position to throw out an override, I’d suggest adopting Roy’s principles. Allowing your team to explore their best ideas will certainly lead to a more motivated team — a team that feels ownership of their work. Making it clear that it is okay for your team to fail when chasing a great idea creates an environment where folks are willing to embrace difficult challenges and explore what’s possible rather than playing it safe.

If you don’t have the luxury to risk several months of a person’s time, look for ways to explore the viability of the idea in several weeks, or several days, before shutting someone down. You’ve hired bright folks — they’ll often surprise you.

For all the makers out there — first, make sure that you have the right motivations. If your proposed work isn’t in the best interest of your team or your organization, it’s probably the right thing for your manager to ask you to move on to something else. But if you feel an override coming down on a great idea, fight respectfully for it and look for ways to protect your manager and reduce the risk of your experiment. Good things will often result.