Today is Facebook’s 10th Anniversary. We didn’t plan it this way, but today, February 4th is also the official publication day for Scaling Up Excellence, which my Stanford colleague Huggy Rao devoted the last seven years to researching and writing. Our interactions with Facebook go back to about the time we started working on the book, These encounters have ranged from informal conversations, to targeted interviews on scaling, to a class project on spreading Facebook sponsored and guided by the company, a presentation on growing Facebook by executives to our class on “Scaling Up Excellence,” and a bit of consulting back in 2008 on hiring and the profile of the “ideal” Facebook employee.
Facebook is an especially instructive scaling case. The company’s struggles and successes taught us many lessons about “the problem of more,” the challenge of spreading and sustaining excellence as an organization or project expands. As the story goes, “The Facebook” was built by 19 year old Harvard undergraduate Mark Zuckerberg in his dorm room as he pounded down beers late one night: The site went live on February 4th 2004, had 1000 users within days, and now boasts over one billion. Facebook had moved to Palo Alto by 2006, located just a few blocks from the Stanford campus (where Huggy and I teach). After executive Katie Geminder, then head of product, visited the d.school class I was teaching with Diego Rodriguez on Creating Infectious Action, I started having occasional conversations with her. Over the years, Huggy and I came to know quite a few key players at Facebook and talked to them now and then about the company’s wild ride – especially folks on the technical side including Chris Cox (employee number 30 now Vice-President of Product) and Mike Schroepfer (now Chief Technology Officer, everyone calls him Schrep).
On the surface, it may seem that sustaining the company’s crazy growth largely a matter of keeping pace with the onslaught of thousands, then tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands, and then millions of people who flocked to the site – that while growing the company wasn’t easy, little effort was expended to attract and keep users, that hoardes of people just found the social site useful, even essential, so they came to signed-up and used it frequently with little prompting from the Facebook team. Indeed, the controversial Facebook film The Social Network reinforces this view.
It sure didn’t feel that easy to people who worked at Facebook. Just like other cases of successful scaling we studied, the company’s experience reinforced the opening paragraph of Chapter 1 in our book:
‘Listen. This is the most important thing that we learned. The one to keep in mind every day if you are bent on spreading excellence to more people and places: Those who master what venture capitalist Ben Horowitz calls “the black art of scaling a human organization” behave as if they are fighting a ground war, not just an air war.’
When we interviewed Chris Cox in 2011, he emphasized that every day of Facebook’s manic journey was treated as a ground war by the company’s leaders. In the early days, for example, when the site was restricted to college students, they had dozens of competitors. Cox explained there were “Mark Zuckerbergs at 40 schools all trying to build Facebook. There was one in Columbia. There were two at Dartmouth. There were like four at Harvard. Everybody was trying to build this idea.” Zuckerberg’s team launched one battle after another to design the site and marketing strategy to vanquish competitors and conquer one school at a time.
In case after case of successful scaling – be it adding more employees and customers or spreading new and better thoughts and deeds within an organization -- the savvy leaders we studied realized that fighting the ground war was the only way to spread the right mindset from those who lived it to those who didn’t. They learned (often the hard way) that just bombarding employees with a quick PowerPoint presentation, a few days of training, or an inspirational speech from the CEO or Executive Director won’t cut it if the goal is to spread some goodness from the few to the many. The best leaders kept grinding it out, pressing each person, team, or organization to make one little change after another in what they believed, felt, and did.
That is what founders Ankit Gupta and Akshay Kothari did every day as they grew Pulse News to 4, then 7, then 11, and then to over 20 people (and sold the company to LinkedIn for 90 million dollars in 2013). That is what Claudia Kotchka did during her seven-year effort to spread innovation practices at Procter & Gamble. When Kotchka was Vice-President of Design Innovation and Strategy, she started with a tiny team and one project and ended with over 300 innovation experts embedded in dozens of diverse P&G businesses. And it was what Wyeth’s Pharmaceuticals Michael Kamarck did as president of the firm’s manufacturing group. This effort ultimately resulted in sharp cost reductions, increased quality, and an upswing in employee commitment and pride across the firm’s 37 plants (Wyeth is now part of Pfizer). Kamarack began with an air war – creating the corporate equivalent of shock and awe by expressing alarm about costs and quality, setting seemingly impossible goals (especially cutting costs by 25% and increasing quality at the same time), and talking about guiding principles for change.
This air war set the stage for the ground war. Weyth’s leaders, working in concert with external consultants, started two or three “mini-transformations” in each of eight plants. After creating a deep pockets of excellence in teams with those mini-transformations, they then slowly and systematically cascaded such excellence to one team after another in those eight plants. They then used the same process to create and spread excellence throughout the rest of the Wyeth plants. Most plants hit Kamarck’s 25% cost-saving goals and many exceeded it and quality increased in nearly every plant. And, as leaders at Wyeth told us, the process felt like “Changing the behaviors and mindsets of 17,000 people …. one person at a time.”
Certainly, scaling is tougher going in some settings than others. There are also junctures in every effort where it is wise to take short cuts or secure a quick win. Yet after digging into one case after another, and study after study, every allegedly speedy and easy scaling success turned out to be just one we hadn’t understood very well. A report from the Casey Foundation brings this point home. The Foundation did a post-mortem of their five-year 50 million dollar “New Futures” program, which developed and spread practices for cutting dropout and pregnancy rates among “at risk” teens and dampening “unemployment and inactivity after high school” in six U.S. cities. Casey titled their report “The Path of Most Resistance” because taking the harder, slower, and tougher road was usually best – and shortcuts typically backfired. The best leaders, for example, worked doggedly to confront, nag, and eventually wear-down stubborn bureaucrats to change rules about allocating money to reduce hassles for the teens and families they served.
After spending seven years studying scaling, Huggy and I have learned to worry when a leader or team says “we wish we had time to do things right, but we just don’t” or, worse, “we always try to take the path of least resistance.” Yes, we identified many tactics and strategies that organizations can use to make scaling happen a bit faster, to be a bit less messy, and to increase your odds of success. But there is no quick, easy, or sure fire formula. When we asked P&G’s Claudia Kotchka about the most important thing she learned about scaling up innovation practices and positions across that giant company, she answered “Patience. Persistence. My CEO, AG Lafley, reminded me how important it was again and again.”
Note: I also posted this on LinkedIn this morning on my "Influencer" page.