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How failing is a core value in the culture of Facebook

Move fast and break things. The mantra of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and it's natural place in the culture.

Søren Vasø Hansen

Søren Vasø Hansen

Move fast and break things.

That is the famous mantra from Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. He lives by this and has built work culture around it because it’s in the center of how to get to that #1 place in the market.

Facebook allows failure because it’s the only way to figure out what works. But failing is hard.

So how do you make culture work in a way where everyone is okay with failing? I think it’s a two-step process, and both are found in the core of Facebook.

1. Mindset of progress

Every time you do something different there is not two outcomes: Fail or Success. There is only one: Progress.

That’s the mindset everyone should have.

If the result wasn’t great you’ll now know what not to do and you’ll have learned more about what to do next. And if it was a great result, then how can you take it to the next level?

Fail or Success is something that has a final stage, but development never has.

Like the great Thomas Edison said:

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10.000 ways that won’t work”.

2. Internal structure

The second thing is to implement a structure that allows this mindset to live. I talked about this before on how Googles does it with rules.

But Mark Zuckerberg does it by giving his engineers total decision-power of what they think could improve Facebook.

It works because of their infrastructure, says Mark Zuckerberg :

“At any given point in time, there isn’t just one version of Facebook running, there are probably 10,000. Any engineer at the company can basically decide that they want to test something.

There are some rules on sensitive things, but in general, an engineer can test something, and they can launch a version of Facebook not to the whole community, but maybe to 10,000 people or 50,000 people—whatever is necessary to get a good test of an experience.

And then, they get a readout of how that affected all of the different metrics and things that we care about. How were people connecting? How were people sharing? Do people have more friends in this version? Of course, business metrics, like how does this cost the efficiency of running the service, how much revenue are we making?

It can even kick off qualitative studies and ask people how happy they are with this version. And then at the end of that, the engineer can come to their manager, and say, “Hey, here’s what I built, these are the results. Do we want to explore this further and do this?”

And giving people the tools to be able to go get that data without having to argue whether their idea is good through layers of management before testing something, frees people up to move quicker. If the thing doesn’t work, then we add that to our documentation of all the lessons that we’ve learned over time.

If it does work, then we can incorporate those small changes into the base of what Facebook is—that now everyone else who is trying to build an improvement, that’s the new baseline that they need to get against.”

Facebook invested hugely in making this infrastructure. And it also changed their mantra to “Move fast with stable infrastructure.” Maybe not as catchy as “Move fast and break things,” but as Facebook grew, hacking stuff would break more than it would help gain speed.

This is a perfect example of how to use structure to unleash human potential. If everyone had to check off ideas with a supervisor before testing them, Facebook would have moved much slower and maybe not have been the giant it is today.

But most of all, it’s a great example of culture.

"Ben Testing"

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, tells this story:

”So we have a very famous story at Facebook about a young summer intern named Ben who wanted to help figure out how we could not take the site down, and to understand how we could recover from bugs triggered.

So he triggered the bug and took the site down for 30 minutes. You know, in our industry, that is crazy. He got hired full-time, and they started calling what he did “Ben Testing.” We put things in place so that you wouldn’t take the site down, but it was the celebration of: “That was a good idea—not well executed—but we still want to do those tests.”

This story highlights just how influenced everyone is by culture at Facebook. Ben lighted a big fire but got a job on the other side. Because the idea was right – even though the execution lagged.

I think experimenting with stuff is way overlooked in today’s businesses. It’s something that unlocks true innovation and makes you move fast. But you need both culture and structure to support it before it can ever take off.

As a leader you need a mindset like Mark Zuckerberg:

“A lot of the decisions that I’m making are, ‘OK, is this going to destroy the company?’ Because if not, then let them test it.”

You can catch the full interview with Mark Zuckerberg here on a 29 min podcast.

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