I go to quite a few networking events; dinners, talks, conferences and the like. I go to them because I almost always learn something and because I almost always meet someone interesting. A favourite of mine is 9others, which limits the number of attendees to 10 and encourages debate over dinner. The reason I like this so much is that the format always seem to result in a really thorough discussion that drills right to the nub of a problem and generally finds some answers.

This isn’t meant to be a sales pitch for 9others but that is where I was one particular evening when someone posed the question “How do you become more innovative?”. Seems simple but despite everyone, including myself, having a stab at an answer I wasn’t quite satisfied with any of the ideas.

A few weeks later I was honoured to be asked to talk at Hackers News London about my project “Computing++”, which tries to connect teachers with coders for subject knowledge support. The speaker after me was a guy called Philip Su who was (quite dauntingly) “Website lead, Facebook”. Philip is an entertaining fellow and did a good job of selling me and the rest of the audience “The Hackers Way” – the culture at Facebook. This seems pretty chaotic and ultimately risky but works somehow. After the talks I spoke to Philip and he invited me for a tour of the Facebook office in London, which was fascinating.

Facebook has an incredibly small team of engineering staff at around 1000, that serve over a billion Facebook users. They work hard to keep their engineers happy and motivated with free food and lots of walls to write on, hammocks to code in and even a hot tub meeting room!

Facebook also espouse regular internal hackathons and even the occasional hackamonth. These encourage Facebook engineers to try something new and to test ideas. Reportedly some 70% of hackathon projects ship, although some – like an automated alert when your wife is tagged in a photo with another man – are just for fun (maybe).

From the outside Facebook seems to have a crazy setup. Their engineers run amock with all manner of random creations becoming part of the company’s operations. They prefer “Moving fast and breaking things” to ensuring the service remains up 100% of the time and they put a pitiful number of engineers on major projects. Yet it works. Is it luck? Is there some secret internal Gestapo that ensures all of Facebook follows a plan that no one talks about? Is it all lies? I think No is the answer to all these but it does work and the reason is evolution.

Evolution is a process whereby the fittest to survive do so and the rest don’t. Thereby a population’s characteristics drift with the ever-changing average. The driver for evolution is “environmental pressure”. (Incidentally if you are reading this and dispute the existence of evolution please leave my website).

What has this to do with Facebook and innovation? Well, what Facebook do – entirely deliberately in my opinion – is to create a kind of pressure to innovate. This is a pretty tricky balance and this pressure is quite subtle. Pressure is probably a good word for it too – sort of a squeezing irresistible force. Not a kick in the head or something that you necessarily notice but more a company wide peer pressure. A pressure to impress, to measure up, to do something wicked-cool. A pressure that prioritises trying over succeeding. That last point is important.

And, this pressure is like the environment in a petri dish where histidine dependant salmonella exposed to a given substance are caused to mutate and evolve an ability to synthesise histidine – the Ames test. In this simple process the pressure to survive in histidine free medium is used to assay the mutagenicity of a substance. In the case of Facebook the environment encourages mutations and selects for innovation by using small teams, a flat hierarchy, a culture of creativity and peer competition as pressure in the desired direction. The bad ideas die, the good ones live. So, is it chaotic – absolutely. But, does it work and is it sustainable – ditto.

Thinking about it this is both brave and damned clever. There is a lot of perceived security in control. Logic would suggest that a larger team would do a better job than a smaller team. But, where is the pressure in these situations? To, maintain the status quo and play politics – to keep your job NOT to innovate. This is why large companies become less innovative and get disrupted and this is why the private sector is more innovative than the public sector – pressure. This is why disruption is possible – the incumbents become too safe and they stop feeling the pressure that a bootstrapped startup feels. The bootstrapped startup CEO feels the pressure to succeed despite the odds, to find the solution that has only been technically possible since 8.20 that morning, to feed his family and fit everything in as well as occasionally sleep. I should say that Facebook aren’t alone in having worked out how to encourage innovation – Intuit are another fantastic example. What both of these large but very successful companies do is to let their people feel the pressure required to innovate rather than to maintain. Another overlapping area incidentally is The Lean Startup which is about testing and measuring – itself a way of creating a pressure to innovate.

Back to Facebook, before Facebook there came Friendster and MySpace but Facebook out innovated and won. Mark Zuckerberg knows that if Facebook stops innovating someone else will spot the latest trick and get the edge. Mark Zuckerberg knows that if that happened Facebook could be screwed. So, as tenuous and as risky as it seems “the hackers way” is about survival because it is literally a case that companies must “innovate or die” and Zuck knows it.

So TL;DR and all that. Innovation is the evolution of ideas. If you don’t innovate someone else will and the Facebook culture is built around that idea. If you want to innovate you must find the right pressure (which does not mean bully staff so they work harder and take less risks). If you want to innovate create a situation where trying and failing is better than doing nothing; by the law of averages every so often you won’t fail and very occasionally something amazing will come along 🙂