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Making Mistakes with Mark Zuckerberg

ZuckerbergIn an aside, Mark Zuckerberg takes the issue of mistakes head-on in his second town hall meeting with the public. To a surprising degree he challenges conventional wisdom, demonstrating that he’s done some serious thinking and conversing with his team. In a single nut, he lays out a philosophy of mistakes that’s extremely accurate and pragmatic—and will withstand the scrutiny of research.  

Although he puts his philosophy of mistakes in the context of Facebook, his ideas will travel well. Very well, indeed.

Successful people spend most of their time making mistakes. Consciously or not, this is the kind of statement—and mindset–that dilutes the fear of making mistakes. That fear may be one of the most difficult fears to dislodge in most people. By emphasizing this fact, Zuckerberg is sharing and creating a cultural mindset different from the norms in most organizations. Indeed, the research clearly supports the idea that people who never make mistakes are unlikely to accomplish much.

Successful people learn from their mistakes. This perspective spins out from Zuckerberg as a simple given. But all the research suggests that, well. . .  95% of the time we don’t learn from our mistakes. We merely repeat them. Learning requires us to engage in such activities as asking disconfirming questions, entertaining and testing multiple hypotheses, and trying to prove your own ideas wrong. Of course two biases, the tendency to pay too much attention to the most readily available info and to let a single statistic or fact dominate our thinking, regularly get in the way of learning. But learning from your mistakes will require the application of significant skills that aren’t intuitive.  

What ends up mattering is what you get right. If you’re around a real scientist or thinker—you understand that it takes a lot of errors, mistakes and failures to get something right–and to resolve your problem. Candidly, Zuckerberg’s stuff is small potatoes in contrast to some big thinking that a few engage in. I have reference to a brilliant article by Nils Gilman (UC Berkeley) on The Twin Insurgency. He argues—after years of research and gathering of facts—that “the nation is under siege from plutocrats and criminals who unknowingly compound each other’s insidiousness.” I believe he’s got his conclusion right. With these insights, the more intelligent state governments (there are still a few around) can, overtime, make more pragmatic interventions that impact the middle class constructively.

If you get a few big things right, you can make some pretty important changes in the world. I suspect I’d take issue with his definition of “big things,” but that doesn’t negate the truth of his statement. Zuckerberg was obviously thinking about his original Facebook, launched in 2004 and originally planned for just Harvard students, then Boston area students, then the US—and now the globe. But a more impactful creation of a big thing was Salk and Sabin’s research on Polio and their creation of a vaccine. A different kind of big thing, the discovery of a channel weakness in a consumer product organization (where I consulted) and its resolution, brought drastic changes in control and profitability for the organization in less than a year.

Pepsi got one big thing right and became a top consumer products company. For years Pepsi’s challenge of Coca Cola was an utter failure. Coke’s hour-glass shaped bottle design became its most important competitive advantage. Pepsi’s John Sculley understood that the Coke design nearly became the product. Trying to compete with Coke, Pepsi spent millions of dollars and many years studying new bottle designs. But it never achieved the recognition of the Coke bottle.

Deciding that they needed more information about the consumer, Sculley launched a careful test to study how families actually consumed Pepsi and other soft drinks in their homes. Sculley learned what marketers now recognize as a key fact about snack foods. People will consume however much you can persuade them to buy. Sculley decided to launch larger bottles, and had dramatic results. Coca-Cola couldn’t convert its famed hourglass silhouette bottle into a larger container. “Pepsi’s market share not only expanded dramatically, it drove the long unassailable Coke bottle into extinction in the U.S. market and beyond.”

Pepsi’s one big thing changed the consumer world, just as Facebook’s one big thing has changed the media world.

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