Google Rules on People Management

Adam Bryant has an intriguing article in the New York Times covering Google’s Quest to Build a Better Boss.  As a Google-phile rather than a Google-phobe, it covers a topic that I am delighted is being covered by Google.

Google could be an organization that is ruled by the functioning of the Intelligence Trap, as Edward de Bono defined it.  In other words people so highly intelligent that they too quickly accept their first hypothesis on how things function.  They move to defend their first hypothesis rather than continuing to probe on why other hypotheses might fit the circumstances better.

Luckily in early 2009, statisticians inside the Googleplex here embarked on a plan code-named Project Oxygen.  Their mission was to devise something far more important to the future of Google Inc. than its next search algorithm or app. They wanted to build better bosses.

Perhaps only a data-mining giant like Google would have followed this approach.  They began analyzing performance reviews, feedback surveys and nominations for top-manager awards. They correlated phrases, words, praise and complaints.

Later that year they produced the following list of directives in order of importance – as well as a few managements pitfalls it found.

Eight Good Behaviors

  1. Be a good coach
  2. Empower your team and don’t micromanage
  3. Express interest in team members’ success and personal well-being.
  4. Don’t be a sissy: Be productive and results-oriented
  5. Be a good communicator and listen to your team
  6. Help your employees with career development
  7. Have a clear vision and strategy for the team
  8. Have key technical skills so you can help advise the team

Three Pitfalls of Managers

  1. Have trouble making a transition to the team
  2. Lack a consistent approach to performance management and career development
  3. Spend too little time managing and communicating

What is important in that list of Good Behaviors is the order.  It runs quite counter to how Google behaved in much of its 13-year history to that point.  Particularly in the early years, Google had a pretty simple approach to management: Leave people alone. Let the engineers do their stuff. If they become stuck, they’ll ask their bosses, whose deep technical expertise propelled them into management in the first place.

In that list, technical expertise — the ability, say, to write computer code in your sleep — ranked dead last among Google’s big eight. What employees valued most were even-keeled bosses who made time for one-on-one meetings, who helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers, and who took an interest in employees’ lives and careers.

“In the Google context, we’d always believed that to be a manager, particularly on the engineering side, you need to be as deep or deeper a technical expert than the people who work for you.” Laszlo Bock, Google’s vice president for “people operations,” says. “It turns out that that’s absolutely the least important thing. It’s important, but pales in comparison. Much more important is just making that connection and being accessible.”

What is not mentioned in this article but is equally important is that this ensures more people who are ‘close to the coal face’ as Shell describe it are having their voices heard.  The more customer inputs are heard within the organization, the more likely it is that the organization will be delivering what customers really want.

For a similar perspective just remember what Commander D. Michael Abrashoff was saying some 10 years earlier on Grassroots Leadership.

He commanded the USS Benfold, a $1 billion warship, which was in 1999 one of the U.S. Navy’s most modern, most lethal fighting machines.  This is how he described his management approach.

“In most organizations today, ideas still come from the top. Soon after arriving at this command, I realized that the young folks on this ship are smart and talented. And I realized that my job was to listen aggressively — to pick up all of the ideas that they had for improving how we operate. The most important thing that a captain can do is to see the ship from the eyes of the crew.”

It’s taken Google another ten years to prove this same approach by extensive analysis but at least they’ve got there in the end.  Of course knowing these preferred behaviors for managers is only a small part of the challenge.

Much bigger is to get the cultural change within the organization so that these behaviors become the way of life for managers.  It takes real talent in managers to have faith that your team will deliver better results if you give them the responsibilities.  Undoubtedly some hired for other skills will not be able to make that cultural change.

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