Mark Zuckerberg’s seven-word definition of “company values” is both provocative and actionable

Keep things simple.
Keep things simple.
Image: AP Photo/Steven Senne
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Empty promises suck.

That’s why so many employees roll their eyes when companies and CEOs talk about “core values.” Too often, these values (honesty; respect; equality; compassion; accountability; et cetera) become a laundry list of power nouns that promise professional utopia—yet fall flat in practice.

But Facebook CEO and cofounder Mark Zuckerberg has a refreshingly succinct, fluff-free approach to company values. As he explains in a recent episode of the podcast “Masters of Scale,” he abides by a simple, actionable definition: To identify your company values, ask, “What are you willing to give up?”

Zuckerberg explains his theory to LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman as it pertains to Facebook’s former value statement, “Move fast and break things.” (It’s since been adapted to the less catchy “Move fast with stable infrastructure.”)

“So the value is actually ‘move fast.’ And my whole theory on values is that a lot of organizations have values which don’t mean very much—because they’re just table stakes, things like ‘Be honest.’ Of course you’re going to be honest! That’s not an option—you’re not giving anything up to be honest, that’s an automatic. That shouldn’t be a defining principle of the company, that should be a principle of every company. So ‘move fast’ I think is interesting because you actually have to be willing to give something up to get it. And the question is, what are you willing to give up?”

Zuckerberg explains that early on, his team was willing to tolerate some amount of bugs and flaws in exchange for “moving faster and learning what our community wants faster.” Eventually, the time it took to go back and fix those bugs was greater than the value they gained by creating very quickly.

“So we were like, okay, we need a new strategy to enable us to move fast,” says Zuckerberg. “What we came up with was we’re going to do this by building the best infrastructure, so an engineer who comes from any company is going to be able to ship their product faster, and test it better, and move faster and all these things, at Facebook than anywhere else in the world. So that’s what we mean by move fast with stable infrastructure.”

In order to move fast, Facebook has had to invest a huge amount of money and effort into building infrastructure. And that’s the point: To actually follow through on company values, you need to be willing to make sacrifices in other areas. Values “are not free,” Zuckerberg concludes. “Nothing is.”

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