Facebook in Beta

April 15, 2013 3:45 pm Published by Bill Boorman

Every time you log into your Facebook Timeline or account, something looks or feels a bit different. There will be a new instruction, a question, or a slightly different way of doing things. The good folks in the Facebook labs in Palo Alto are constantly turning new ideas into tests, to make what many of us view as “our” platform a little bit better.

You can tell that changes are taking place, because the volume of complaining turns up a notch. Because we view Facebook as “our” channel, we hate it when they change something that we initially complained about but have now gotten used to. Sometimes it feels a bit like someone has sneaked in to our apartment in the night and redecorated, or moved the furniture around. 

When I was younger, I shared a house with a friend, and every day I moved or hid something. Nothing massive at first: I just kept changing things a little without telling them. They hated it, although I thought it was funny, or just better. Facebook is a lot like that. They change things that we don’t think need improving because we don’t know what might be possible. They change things that already work perfectly well in our world, and we don’t really understand why they do it. We get a bit mad, and sometimes we scream and stamp our feet a bit, but we never quite hate it enough to leave forever, although there is plenty of posturing.

I just read an excellent book on developing lean processes in HR, not surprisingly called “LeanHR”, written by my friend and sometimes partner in crime Dwane Lay. The biggest “aha” moment came for me right at the beginning of the book in the introduction, and I nearly missed it because I had skipped the chapter to get to what I thought was the meat of the book. (I have a short attention span.)

In the introduction, Lay makes one great statement, and tells one great story. The statement relates to the practice of looking to change things only when they are failing or things are going disastrously wrong. Lay uses the current global economic environment as an example of this, with governments around the world slashing spending, with what we refer to in the UK as “the austerity budget.” We are only thinking about running our economies, our countries, states, parishes, towns at every level more efficiently now that we have no money and we have no choice. This points out that we have had years of waste when we couldn’t really be bothered to think about it because times were good.

An example of this in the UK is how most towns in the UK have turned off most of the street lights. Turns out we never really needed them. We just loved wasting cash. How much better would it have been if we had thought of this when things were going great? What if we had changed in order to find a better, more efficient way of doing things that benefited everyone because we wanted to provide the best, most economic and efficient service or product, not because we had to react? I love this thinking, banishing the old, “if it’s not broke don’t fix it” mindset.

Facebook has an approach of constant test and change, rolling changes out to groups of users and seeing what really happens. As users adopt, drop, or use features in a different way from what the designers were expecting, so the product gets tinkered with and rolled out. We, as the users, should collectively embrace every change, rather than lamenting the loss of features that we used to equally hate when they were introduced but grew to love, despite mounting protests when they get changed or moved away.

The other story I love from the book is a comment Lay made at the start of a project, when being told that some new thinking about a process just wouldn’t work or get adopted. His comment was to thank his opponent for their contribution to the discussion, and state, “However, I’m not prepared to fail at something we haven’t tried yet!” I have to admit to letting out a small cheer when I read this statement. I’ve been in plenty of meetings and on projects that start with all the reasons something won’t work, rather than embracing the possibility that it could. I’m glad Facebook takes this attitude to the users’ reaction to change, and I sense there is a big one coming.

My last thought is around the Facebook approach to introducing us to features or ways of working that we haven’t asked for or complained about, because we don’t bother to think about what is possible–because we are fine with what we have. This reminds me of the old Henry Ford quote relating to the invention of the car: “If I would have asked the people what they needed, they would have said faster horses.” Better to try things and see what happens in the ways that Facebook or Google do, than spending forever researching and talking about stuff, and not actually doing. Better to apply test practice over best practice any time.

My reason for this fairly long conversation piece is that I think we should learn a lot from this approach, and apply it to our recruiting efforts. If things are working well for you, then it’s the best time to tinker. Try something new when you are not under pressure to do it. Stick your recruiting efforts in permanent beta, and have fun with it!


This post was written by Bill Boorman

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