This report is directly copied from the Harvard Business Review of December 2013.
“A few years into the company’s life, founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin actually wondered whether Google needed any managers at all.”
For folks building worker owned Co-ops this article can give a good perspective on which work is production and which work facilitates production, so the team can stay on track meeting goals.
How Google Sold Its Engineers on Management
by David A. Garvin
Since the early days of Google, people throughout the company have questioned the value of managers. That skepticism stems from a highly technocratic culture. As one software engineer, Eric Flatt, puts it, “We are a company built by engineers for engineers.” And most engineers, not just those at Google, want to spend their time designing and debugging, not communicating with bosses or supervising other workers’ progress. In their hearts they’ve long believed that management is more destructive than beneficial, a distraction from “real work” and tangible, goal-directed tasks.
A few years into the company’s life, founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin actually wondered whether Google needed any managers at all. In 2002 they experimented with a completely flat organization, eliminating engineering managers in an effort to break down barriers to rapid idea development and to replicate the collegial environment they’d enjoyed in graduate school. That experiment lasted only a few months: They relented when too many people went directly to Page with questions about expense reports, interpersonal conflicts, and other nitty-gritty issues. And as the company grew, the founders soon realized that managers contributed in many other, important ways—for instance, by communicating strategy, helping employees prioritize projects, facilitating collaboration, supporting career development, and ensuring that processes and systems aligned with company goals.
Google now has some layers but not as many as you might expect in an organization with more than 37,000 employees: just 5,000 managers, 1,000 directors, and 100 vice presidents. It’s not uncommon to find engineering managers with 30 direct reports. Flatt says that’s by design, to prevent micromanaging. “There is only so much you can meddle when you have 30 people on your team, so you have to focus on creating the best environment for engineers to make things happen,” he notes. Google gives its rank and file room to make decisions and innovate. Along with that freedom comes a greater respect for technical expertise, skillful problem solving, and good ideas than for titles and formal authority. Given the overall indifference to pecking order, anyone making a case for change at the company needs to provide compelling logic and rich supporting data. Seldom do employees accept top-down directives without question.
Google downplays hierarchy and emphasizes the power of the individual in its recruitment efforts, as well, to achieve the right cultural fit. Using a rigorous, data-driven hiring process, the company goes to great lengths to attract young, ambitious self-starters and original thinkers. It screens candidates’ résumés for markers that indicate potential to excel there—especially general cognitive ability. People who make that first cut are then carefully assessed for initiative, flexibility, collaborative spirit, evidence of being well-rounded, and other factors that make a candidate “Googley.”
So here’s the challenge Google faced: If your highly skilled, handpicked hires don’t value management, how can you run the place effectively? How do you turn doubters into believers, persuading them to spend time managing others? As it turns out, by applying the same analytical rigor and tools that you used to hire them in the first place—and that they set such store by in their own work. You use data to test your assumptions about management’s merits and then make your case.
Analyzing the Soft Stuff
To understand how Google set out to prove managers’ worth, let’s go back to 2006, when Page and Brin brought in Laszlo Bock to head up the human resources function—appropriately called people operations, or people ops. From the start, people ops managed performance reviews, which included annual 360-degree assessments. It also helped conduct and interpret the Googlegeist employee survey on career development goals, perks, benefits, and company culture. A year later, with that foundation in place, Bock hired Prasad Setty from Capital One to lead a people analytics group. He challenged Setty to approach HR with the same empirical discipline Google applied to its business operations.
Setty took him at his word, recruiting several PhDs with serious research chops. This new team was committed to leading organizational change. “I didn’t want our group to be simply a reporting house,” Setty recalls. “Organizations can get bogged down in all that data. Instead, I wanted us to be hypothesis-driven and help solve company problems and questions with data.”
People analytics then pulled together a small team to tackle issues relating to employee well-being and productivity. In early 2009 it presented its initial set of research questions to Setty. One question stood out, because it had come up again and again since the company’s founding: Do managers matter?
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