GOOGLE’S Innovation Secrets (It’s not about the perks)


One of the companies we like to talk about in our leadership programs at Xavier when we speak about the importance of culture is Google.   Many of you know of the legendary perks and employee benefits that this Silicon Valley search engine giant lavishes upon their workforce (called Googlers).

Here is 3 minute video on how Oprah showcased Google when they were selected by Fortune Magazine as the Best Place to Work in America.

Since my son works there, I have had the chance to speak with him and tour the Googleplex for myself.  I can tell you that the video does not do the place justice.

When people across the planet think about creating an innovation culture, Google almost always comes to the top of mind.  But what makes the culture work?  Is it the gourmet food, the massages, on-site free health care, the workout facilities that make the difference?

Or, could it be the lengths they go through to hire only the best people?  Google receives over one million resumes per year for about 5000 –ish positions.  I guess they can afford to be choosy.  But there is more to it – the GAT (the Google Aptitude Test), for example, was developed by the company and it makes SAT’s and GMAT’s seem like child’s play.    The test helps them measure one’s creative thinking and problem solving skills – attributes that they feel identify the kind of “geeks” that are just perfect for the kinds of work done at the company.

Or, perhaps it has to do with the overall rigor of the hiring process.  People have been known to go through as many as 14 separate sets of interviews before being hired.   (You might be able fool an interviewer once, but it gets much harder when they get 14 tries to peel back the onion).

Or, perhaps it is the fact that they trust their people.  So much, in fact, that they allow Googlers to spend one full day per week working on ANY project of their choosing they feel would best benefit the company.  Google refers to this as their 20% time, and many of their product innovations have come from these creative explorations by their employees.

In a recent article in Google’s Think Quarterly e-magazine Google senior VP of People Operations, Laszlo Bock shares his view of where the “Magic” comes from in his piece Passion, not Perks.

In Bock’s view, the perks, while awesome, have little to do with their success.   He says it really comes down to three main points.

Mission

“We spend more time working than we do on almost any other activity in our lives.  People want that time to mean something” says Bock.   According to the company website, Google describes its mission as “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”.  This seems to many of their employees as being less about making money and more about making the world better place.  My son told me about one of the more interesting applications for the new Google + product – creating “hangouts” where home-bound physically impaired people could engage with others through web conferences.  As I heard him talk about it, I could distinctly sense a high level of personal pride and satisfaction about how he gets to work on something so much more than yet another social networking site.  This one is being used for something important.  I would suggest to you that new Google Chrome TV commercials are focusing on the same idea proclaiming “the Web is what you make of it.”

Transparency

In IT, the idea of Open Architecture is one that I’m sure many of you have heard.  Google seems to work very hard to be open with its employees.   They host a weekly information session where Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin share information with all employees, and invite questions.   According to Bock, virtually no topic is off-limits.   Eric Schmidt has been known to share board packets with employees.  They seem to genuinely want their employees to have access, and to know as much as possible about what’s going on and where they are heading.    They trust that their employees will keep the information confidential.  I have found this to be so in conversations with my son about his company where he has more than once told me “I don’t think I can really talk with you about that”. When you give trust TO someone, and you have chosen well, they will live up to your expectation.

Voice

This one should be obvious, but many leadership program participants we encounter would not say their voices are really heard within their organizations.  Google has been innovative in trying to figure out how to listen to its employees (which gets increasingly hard as the company gets larger and more geographically dispersed).   Here are some of the means they use to listen, recognizing that good ideas can come from many different places in different ways:

  • TGIF (the weekly information session with Sergey and Larry
  • various sites and listservs
  • Google+ conversations (of course)
  • the Google Universal Ticketing Systems (‘GUTS’ – which is a way to file issues about anything, and is then reviewed for patterns or problems, similar to New York City’s 311 line)
  •  ‘FixIts’ (24-hour sprints where they drop everything and focus 100 percent of our energy on solving a specific problem), and
  • a wide range of surveys

Giving information openly and inviting many voices does not necessarily mean that Google is a democracy.  They do have a hierarchy and specific people have to make final decisions.  If you think about it, we don’t always expect to get things our way, but it feels a lot better when we feel our opinions were seriously considered.

All of these things could be done by any company.  And, for the most part all three of these are (more or less) free.    Sure the perks would be nice to have.   But they don’t really make the difference.

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3 Comments

Filed under Innovation, Leading

3 responses to “GOOGLE’S Innovation Secrets (It’s not about the perks)

  1. Pingback: Who said only creative people came up with good ideas? « Amena Khan's Blog

  2. Mike Keller

    Thank you for this inspiring post Len. I would like to add “compassion” as another innovation secret at GOOGLE.

    I encourage everyone to watch Chade-Meng’s TED Talk on “Everyday Compassion at Google”:

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