Last week I spent a few days in Dublin, which has become the European capital of IT and social media companies with Google’s European head quarter and Facebook just around the corner from each other. One of the high points of the trip was to experience the famous Google culture and see what the fuzz was really all about.
Full of inspiration, I decided to write a blog on the subject when a colleague of mine exclaimed that it is always the same companies featured when exemplifying innovation. I agree with him. Therefor I aim to give a slightly different view of the Google culture and the leadership characterized by the next business thinkers in my blog series.
The Google story
Sergey Brin and Larry Page (known as the “Google guys” after an article in Playboy 2004) are two of the most influential technology entrepreneurs and richest people in the world. They are co-founders of the biggest search engine in the world, which is also one of the top global brands.
In 1996 they began working together on a search engine that was called Backrub and in 1997 they changed the name to Google after the mathematical term “googol” – an allusion on the vast amount of online information. The domain google.com was registered in September 1997 and a shop was set up in a rented garage for the business called Google Technology Inc.
Already after the first year PC World crowned Google the top search engine, which proved to be the beginning of a remarkable story – from a two man show to a gigantic global enterprise in less than a decade.
Most people know that Google hardly was the first search engine on the market. It was not the product or solution that led to success. It was rather four other factors: first, Google ranked the pages differently, more akin to the way an individual would rank a page. Secondly, the design of the page and how clean it was. Thirdly, how Google began to sell ads based on users’ searches. And last but not least, the culture. Google has during a long time been famous for being a great place to work. Moreover, it seems to be a culture emanating from the top. An interesting fact; Larry Page is still the one having the last word in the recruitment process – for every new employee (!).
So what is the Google culture and how come it is always used to explain the Google success story?
The Google culture is synonymous with the playful way in which the offices are designed. Many copy the style in hopes of becoming more innovative and creative. However, if you read my blog on the fuzzy logic of HR you will see that it is not as simple as that. To build an innovative culture it takes more than just putting up a garden or a pool table in the office. My opinion is actually that is has nothing to do with that.
When walking around on the premises you are first fascinated by all the excessiveness, but after a while you realise that the café areas are empty (except for lunch), the corridors are just for pass-through and there are no innovative new ideas coming up across the teams in the numerous of meeting rooms. I asked my guide whether or not she thought the work environment actually stimulated any creative thinking. “Not really” was her answer “but it makes it more fun to be here”. When the Googlers take one of their well-deserved breaks (because they do work hard) in the cafeteria, work talk is hardly at the top of their priority. The meetings that take place are mostly social, which is no wonder considering the strong Google culture where you spend almost 24/7 with your co-workers.
Nevertheless, do not doubt for a second that the work environment has a purpose. Even though it is not to stimulate innovative thinking (a common misthought), it does have a strong link to performance. The fun environment that Google is known for covers the fact that the employees are just part of a big machinery, the free food and drinks makes the Googlers work harder and spend extra time in front of their desk while they wait for the food to be served, and the characteristics of the work environment is communicated to the talent market to attract the top students from the highest ranked universities. The people I know that work at Google are people that constantly seem to impress me with their skills and talent.
However, even though you have top talents that work hard and spend a lot of time at the office, there needs to be something more that explains the secret behind Google’s innovative capability. What leads to innovation, I claim, are the promotion routines as well as the special group that is dedicated to radical innovations.
Ongoing Business or Business of the future
To explain my Google-theory I will illustrate it using Tovstiga diagrams on exploitative and exploratory business strategy and the different stages of an organisation’s life-cycle.
Incremental changes and improvements of the ongoing business cause movement along the blue curve (exploitative) while radical innovations result in a jump to the red curve (exploratory). The challenge facing most executives today is enabling a jump to the red curve while you always have to have focus on ongoing business and exploit current competitive opportunities. The companies that succeed in doing this are called ambidextrous organisations – they are adept at deriving competitive advantage from the current business whilst seeking to pioneer radical innovation to ensure future competitiveness.
Google attempts to do this by implementing a Promotion and Performance Management system that stimulates process efficiency. As one Googler explained it: “Here we don’t get credit for working long hours, what matters is if you can do what you do in a shorter time.” Meanwhile, Google has incorporated the Google X team, which no one really knows what they do. It is like a “black box where the really smart people work”. Not that long ago, the Google X team came up with Google glasses.
For those of you who think that the key to achieving the same success as Google is to paint your lounge in blue and pink, I would strongly advice you to think again. What you should do is measure on the right things – the things that constantly improve and radically change your business – simultaneously.