Zuckerberg on Making Mistakes

This week at the Web 2.0 Summit, Mark  Zuckerberg from Facebook talked about four values that he’s made a key part of his company’s DNA: move fast, be bold, take risks, and don’t worry about getting everything right.

What I appreciate about this interview is that Zuckerberg, a highly public and respected figure, is modeling that it’s OK to make mistakes, and that it’s totally normal, and even expected, to admit that you’ve been wrong, not just in front of your team, but in front of the whole world.

The best example of this is at 41:18, where he says: “I’ve made so many mistakes in running the company so far… Basically any mistake that you think you can make, I’ve probably made, or will make in the next few years.”  He doesn’t cringe or look frustrated or disappointed; he’s actually smiling the whole time he says this. He goes on to describe that if you’re building a product that people love, you can afford to make mistakes, and people will forgive you. It’s such a surprising statement that the CNN Money headline about the entire interview was “Facebook CEO has made every mistake you can make”.

When he says that in public, he’s doing absolutely the most powerful thing he can to affect his company’s DNA: he is modeling the very behavior that he says he wants everyone to have. It’s all well and good to say that you want everyone to “move fast and take risks”, but in fact, most companies have a huge social penalty for taking risks if you turn out to be wrong. A CEO often models this mistake-aversion by using passive language like “the market wasn’t there for our product” instead of “we misjudged what the market would want”. What effect does that have on their teams? Everyone learns that mistakes aren’t made and acknowledged by people; they just “happen”, and are best swept under the rug, or attributed to factors outside of our control.

Not only does this impact people’s inclination to take risks and be bold, it also affect their ability to learn from mistakes. Given the way Zuck is talking about making mistakes, you get the sense that holding a meeting to review how something went, and draw key learnings from both success and failure would be something you wouldn’t be afraid to attend, and that if you were the one who made a decision that turned out to be wrong, reviewing how that decision got made wouldn’t be too painful or difficult. Most people would prefer to be right, of course, but lowering the social penalty for being wrong means that you not only encourage innovation, but that you are constantly learning and improving.

I believe that companies that put a high value on learning and growth, both for the company overall, and for individuals, have a huge advantage. Would you rather have a staff of lifelong learners who are constantly trying new things, and then sifting through what worked and what didn’t, or a staff of people who are afraid to be wrong, and spending a bunch of their time covering their asses, assigning blame, and trying to figure out what the safest choices are?

At 37:30, Zuck says: “Better to take a risk to do something big and try and fail. You don’t need to get everything right.”

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Author: Marcy Swenson

Marcy Swenson is an executive coach who works with tech startup founders and leaders. She writes about about entrepreneurs, leadership, and startup culture on her blog at StartupHappiness.com. She is studying what factors contribute (or detract) to creating a happy startup culture. Prior to becoming a coach, Marcy was a co-founder with two successful exits; at CPTH (Nasdaq), she built the tech team that led to IPO. Forbes names CPTH the fastest-growing high-tech company in the world in 1999. CPTH grew to 3000 employees in 4 years; for comparison, Google grew to 3000 employees in 6 years.