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The Google Way of Attacking Problems

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Traditionally, businesses are built to focus on “creating shareholder value” based on a “culture of accountability”. In such organizations, problem-solving can end up focusing primarily on people rather than on problems. In the book, How Google Works, Eric Schmidt, and Jonathan Rosenberg, describe how, in 2002 before Google’s IPO, 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.”

Rather than be an arrogant executive publicly humiliating his hapless employees it turned out to be a show of confidence, defining a tough problem that he knew his talented engineers would want to solve. By next day, a group of engineers shared a solution that not only resolved the AdWords problem but helped transform Google into the major money machine that it is today.

Greg Satell writes in his Harvard Business Review column on Organizational Culture (Satell, G. 2014), that Google, basically, built a culture that attacks problems — not people. Greg goes on to outline the four principles below that derive from the premise that culture defines an organization and how it plays a critical role in its success:

  1. People want to do a good job. Rather than threaten to fire anyone or demand “accountability”, Page offered his engineers a difficult and interesting problem to solve, confident that someone would want to accept the challenge.
  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.
  3. People perform best at tasks that interest them. This incident took place in 2002, just as Google was gearing up for its IPO. The problem with AdWords was a serious impediment to achieving revenues. The glitch in AdWords was a complex problem for most people, it was relatively basic for search engineers who quickly recognized that implementing an “ad relevance score” and ranking ads that way would be a perfect solution.
  4. Great leaders provide a sense of mission and purpose. Talent is only effective when directed by passion and purpose.

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