The Dalai Lama, a designer and a Facebooker walk into a bar…
So, this designer at a dive bar tells me a story:
The Dalai Lama is waiting for a much anticipated letter from a head of state. Day after day, week after week, he asks his assistant if the letter has arrived. Finally, it arrives and the assistant rushes it in. The Dalai Lama tells him to set it on the corner table. Three days later, the assistant is in the office and notices the letter remains unopened on the table. He inquires, “Why haven’t you opened this letter that you waited so anxiously for?” The Dalai Lama replies, “I will open it when I no longer have the desire to open it.”
The story came up because a coworker was talking about how he wanted to buy an expensive bike. He biked a lot in high school and then after three years of not having a bike in college he wanted to jump on a new one. Right before making the purchase he decided against the top-of-the-line choice in favor of a beat-to-shit used bike. If he found himself riding that enough, he’d upgrade.
Through all this chat about resisting temptation and desire I started to think about the opposite - acting on impulse, and how much that’s been a force in my life. I crave and lust all the time. And I move on impulses pretty regularly. There was a list of design principals that the Facebook team came up with earlier this year and the one I loved the most was “when you have a great idea, act on it immediately.” There’s this crazy fuel that comes in the brief hours immediately after you have a good idea. It’s not only an advantage for you, but that enthusiasm spreads to those you’re working with. There’s another mantra at Facebook: Move Fast and Break Things. It’s basically a theory of iteration. Build awesome stuff and get it out there. Constantly fix and improve it based on feedback. Don’t wait. Don’t ask for permission. And if you have good intentions from the start, and you fail, it’s not a big deal.
In trying to reconcile these two beliefs - structured restraint vs impulse - I thought about where Facebook is as a company. In the past month I’ve seen several discussions crop up where two coworkers have fundamentally different strategies on how to approach the same project - one distinctly ‘old school Facebook’ and one ‘new school Facebook’. Old school Facebook hacks. They do things cheap, fast and as good as they can be under those two restraints. They tinker continually once it’s out there. New school Facebook wants to take a step back. How can we do this really well from the start. What are the resources we have, and what can we do to make this incredible at launch?
It’s not as cut and dry as a risky versus conservative approach. It’s not as easy as saying, “well Facebook got to where it is because of its hacker culture, that’s obviously the best strategy.” There are more resources for larger projects now, and the allocation of those resources takes a longer time to navigate correctly. It takes a period of reflection before execution to make sure all the parts are in place. Taking one’s time pre-launch is not simply a risk adverse strategy - the projects may be as bold as they were before, if not bolder.
On a similar token, it’s even harder to dismiss the merits of moving fast and breaking things. It’s unique and exciting and it keeps an organization flat. Anyone from any department can work on a project that might ship to millions of people with relatively little oversight, so long as the intentions are good. Lose that core structure and who knows what else we lose with it.
These battles between restraint and impulse, plan and hack, are going to crop up more and more. It’s part of the transition of turning into a large company. In general, I think success is going to mean maintaing our ability to accept failure and rebuild. If we can keep a culture where it’s okay to make mistakes on a massive scale, employees will feel empowered to ship as fast as they can. It’s fear that slows down the biggest companies. Fear of shareholders, fear of wasted resources, fear of public perception, fear of internal brain drain. There are endless things to be afraid of. Perhaps, more than anything, it’s the fear of being wrong and having to admit it, that ruins the best companies. If we can simply not fear being wrong every now and then, and equally have the humility to admit it when we are, we’ll win.