Here in the valley, there’s a weird awe of Google. It reminds me of the awe that Apple once had when I was there — as a place where the best and brightest go to work. I’ve heard that Intel had that cachet before Apple and some people are now suggesting that Twitter is the “new Google”.
The awe is often evident in specific stories about Google’s gourmet cafeterias. This benefit gets discussed after people visit Google. I find it amusing to read notes from well-regarded analysts and reports, people who can afford a $10 salad, as they tweet about getting the free food. And they go on to talk about Google with reverence that’s somehow tied to the free food.
But reverence for Google should really be for their overall culture. Culture is the root system of the organization; hard to spot but clearly enabling the output. When we see great fruits produced (amazing technology, free food, profitable results, exponential growth) year in and year out, there’s almost always a great system feeding that output.
Google has a cultural DNA that enables them to win in the market, and win repeatedly. Three things they do well which any firm could graft to their business to improve their “fruits”:
- Transparency on all strategy. Google reveals their direction to everyone who works there. No joking. Strategy and priorities are available to everyone, and everyone is expected to know what matters to the company. It is updated when it needs to be changed. It is live to every employee regardless of level.In most companies, only 5% of the workforce understands their company’s strategy.[see footnote] Think about the implications of that: only one person in twenty is prepared to answer, clearly and realistically, what their company should be doing and how their individual efforts contribute to supporting it. I ask you: Can people really be effective without knowing the strategy? Likely not. Google actually treats their talented, principled, creative people like talented, principled, creative people instead of morons. That lets them keep recruiting talented exceptional technologist and business people. Visionary doers go where they will have an impact. So the action for each company wanting to be more Google-like (to graft their culture to yours): post your strategy for the larger business, and any sub-division publically for all to see. Keep it open for questions. Respond to those, especially to those seeking clarity. People use the word social business and think it’s about the tools when in reality it’s about the dialogue. Use a SocialText-like tool to enable feedback and dialogue on the strategy because dialogue creates understanding, which enables organizational velocity.
- Engage each other. Googler’s are expected to come to discussions prepared to engage. If they have a point of view, they are expected to bring data and to be able to take on the discussion actively, regardless of their level or specific role in the organization. It’s not that everyone gets to “mouth off” but everyone has equal credibility if they have something to contribute. And that behavior doesn’t change if Eric or Larry or whoever is in the room. Googler’s don’t defer to the executive in the room, and they don’t say to themselves: “gosh, maybe they don’t want to hear from me”. You could simply say that Google recruits well, but actually this goes beyond recruiting. The cultural norm and expectation is that each person is expected to have the personal courage and interest to champion ideas, and to do their best. When people are expected to do their best, and their peers do, each person steps up. Anytime any of us step back rather than forward on doing engaging one another, we are copping out. Stepping back, when we have a a world that needs MORE people doing their part to impact goodness, solutions, and growth. Some people within large companies argue with me that the opinionated people wouldn’t join a big company; they’ll become entrepreneurs. Well, Google is big, and people join anyway because they know that their voice can still make a difference. I challenge every company to think about why we have a culture of stepping back, rather than forward, and what we can do to get everyone engaged in the game of business. It really does get better when that happens. And any person that says “we’ll never change” has already deemed it so. So the action for any business: demand people step up; and take on every conversation as if that person has the best interest of the company at heart. Does it sound easy? Well, maybe not for companies that haven’t done it, but not doing it is costing you an awful lot already. Isn’t it time to change that? Graft Method: A tactic that companies can take is to stop assigning work based on official job functions, but rather invent the next thing (or solve the next problem) by asking “who wants to play?” Those “interested in solving this problem” can come together to actually do it, and that’s enabling a coalition of the willing. When we do work with companies, we form a coalition of the willing across levels and silos to help define the problem, envision the options, select best choices and take on the responsibilities to make a new reality. Those teams feel their own power and can never return to a world of “I do my thing and you do yours”, because the key now the power of building a shared (collaborative) framework of what’ll work.
- Fight Fair. The one thing I see across companies large and small is that we oft-times don’t take on tough topics and challenges because someone thinks that’s not “politically correct.” I question, when did it become okay to not hash out an issue for the company? When did it become okay to present to the council but then end-run it to the CEO to get things approved off-line? When did it become okay to dismiss your peers without debating the issue with them? That’s BS and everyone knows it, and yet most firms allow such stuff to happen.Google has an interesting policy that Shona Brown embodies when she says “if someone BCCs me on an email, I just write right back so that BCCs behavior stop”. Without wrestling with and handling the conflict inherent in business explicitly, we get nowhere fast. Most people don’t see how tackling conflict explicitly can serve business. They think appeasing everyone creates peace, but instead it results in mediocre “me too” solutions. Or we think that if we get the boss to agree, that’s enough. It is our ability to face tension collaboratively that lets issues get resolved, and creates the right, new solutions. It is in the tension that we decide what tradeoffs to make so everything actually aligns. In this day and age, we’ve gotta take on the issues, with as much data as we have, make the tough tradeoffs, be able to name what matters and why and then be able to walk away ready to follow when the decision has been made. In my book, The New How, that is the point of having a MurderBoarding process (chapter 6)— a structured way to have a fair fight. Whether it is that system or another one, what is important is that your company graft on a way to make “fighting fair” a norm — create/enable/adopt some agreed upon way that people will have a fair fight — ask the right questions, envision options together, pick with clarity on “why” something was picked, and take responsibility for making it real. If you walk inside the halls of Google, that’s what they do. And you can, too.
 Robert S. Kaplan and David P. Norton. 2000. The Strategy-Focused Organization. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.