Shoshin

I have written a lot recently about the challenges I faced after being summarily removed from my post leading News Feed many years ago.

In the end, it turned out to be absolutely the right call for team dynamics. I was one of the world’s top experts on what we needed to build – but I was also a jerk. Getting rid of me allowed them to build a team and made me change my behavior.

But another great outcome? Getting rid of the ‘expert’ made our product better – and smarter.

Before transitioning off the team, I did my best to help my replacements understand the system we had built. I walked them through the decisions that had allowed the system to scale. I shared advice on what to change and the roadmap we expected to follow.

Six months later I checked in with the team. They had ignored everything I told them – and built something much, much better.

As it turns out, a lot of the technical trade-offs I had made when I began my work on News Feed years earlier were out of date. For example, the price and availability of hardware had changed dramatically as had our capacity. RAM heavy systems were no longer prohibitively expensive for us to deploy at scale. The decisions made years earlier were probably right at the time but should have been rethought much earlier. A team unencumbered by prior thinking had no trouble seeing what needed to be done, so they acted.

Zen Buddhism has a concept called Shoshin which is best summarized by the following quote:

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

That’s exactly what was on display in this example. When I said I was an expert, I was right - I just didn’t realize that wasn't necessarily a good thing.

In retrospect, Shoshin seems totally intuitive. Throughout my career at Facebook, a lot of my most innovative work came within the first 12-18 months of looking at a problem. After that I naturally became confident in my knowledge and ultimately complacent. In a lot of industries that might be fine but in ours it is a disaster because the underlying technologies change so rapidly. As a consequence, I’ve tended to change teams every 18-24 months here (though thankfully always on my own terms after News Feed). I keep moving to keep myself open minded.

Unfortunately, that’s a pretty career limiting strategy beyond a certain point. In my experience, the most meaningful areas of impact require concerted effort over a much longer time scale. That’s why I decided not to indulge myself in comfort in my current role. I’ve decided to dedicate myself to maintaining an open mind. In that pursuit I have adopted three strategies.

  1. Be Curious. My immediate instinct when I see new data that challenges the status quo is frustration; disruption creates a lot of work as we must revisit all downstream assumptions. My second reaction is usually embarrassment: I should have thought of this before. These are unproductive automatic thoughts so I'm working hard to counter them. I’m trying to instead shift myself into a mindset of wonder and excitement about the opportunity to improve. With a change in mindset I find I am able to delight in revisiting an area I’d explored before. I savor new developments that shed new light on an old landscape the way I might appreciate a novel telling of an old story.

  2. Systematically disrupt your thinking. A few years ago I started documenting my core assumptions and the decisions I made because of them and I revisit often. For example if we expected the industry standards to evolve in one way but now they are going another, should we change our approach? Doing this regularly helps me feel like I am in charge of disruption rather than a victim of it.

  3. Embrace naiveté. Henry Ford has been quoted as saying: “I am looking for a lot of [people] with an infinite capacity to not know what can’t be done.” When new people join the team I encourage them to ask hard questions rather than trying to fit in. I give them all the context I can for their work but with as few of the specifics as possible to avoid spoiling their thinking.

Is it working? I suppose you’d have to ask my team because I’m usually the last to know. To my credit, this is the longest I’ve been in a single role at Facebook and I still feel like the new kid in class, especially relative to my team. I think that’s a good sign.