The Google Way of Attacking Problems

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Greg Satell for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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One Friday afternoon in 2002, long before his company became a household verb, Larry Page walked into the office kitchen and posted some printouts of results from Google’s AdWords engine. On top, in big bold letters, he wrote, “THESE ADS SUCK.”

In most companies, this would be seen as cruel — an arrogant executive publicly humiliating his hapless employees for shoddy work — but not at Google. In fact, his unusual act was a show of confidence, defining a tough problem that he knew his talented engineers would want to solve.

In their new book, How Google Works, Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg describe what happened next. By early Monday morning, a group of engineers sent out an email with a solution that not only resolved the AdWords problem, but helped transform Google into a major money machine. The episode exemplifies how Google has built a culture that attacks problems — not people. I see four assumptions that drive that kind of culture.

[Here are the first two of four assumptions.]

1. People want to do a good job. Lost in most of the talk about “accountability” is the fact that most people are professionals who want to be proud of their work. Mistakes are not nefarious; they’re often the result of good intentions.

Back in the ‘80’s, “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap

was the prototypical CEO. He would ruthlessly downsize, firing thousands of employees in the process, with the purported aim of “creating shareholder value” and instilling a “culture of accountability.” His performance earned him a place on covers of business magazines with glowing headlines.

If Page had instilled that same culture of accountability, he would’ve run straight down to the ads team and took them to task. He could’ve threatened to fire them, demanded that they work through the weekend and promised that, unless the problem was dealt with quickly, there would be hell to pay. Most companies work like that.

Yet what Page did was something else altogether. He didn’t threaten to fire anyone or demand “accountability.” Rather, he offered his engineers a difficult and interesting problem to solve, confident that someone would want to accept the challenge. That speaks volumes about the culture he and Sergey Brin created at Google.

2. Given enough eyeballs, every bug is shallow. Page didn’t go to the AdWords team, but posted the problem in the kitchen where the whole company was bound to see it. In most companies that would be seen as harsh, purposely embarrassing an underperforming team.

Yet the employees at Google recognized it for what it was. Page was simply abiding by the mantra of the open source movement: “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow” (also known as Linus’s Law). And the engineers responded accordingly.

Google is a large company, with nearly 50,000 employees strewn across more than 40 countries and, from an organizational standpoint, it looks like many other companies of similar size. It has a hierarchical command structure that manages multiple divisions. Yet the difference is that it doesn’t let it’s organizational structure dictate its operational practice.

That’s why Google still, in many ways, is able to operate like a startup. Its leaders recognize that while some of the trappings of a large corporation are inevitable, you can still preserve your ethos. You never really have to grow up as long as you maintain your sense of wonder and excitement.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Greg Satell
is a recognized authority on digital strategy and innovation. He is a speaker, consultant, and writes the Digital Tonto blog. Follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto.

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