Sunday, November 30, 2014

When GM Was Google

From The New Yorker:
The art of the corporate devotional.
Every brilliantly successful corporation spawns books relating its success to management methods that you, too, can follow.
Every brilliantly successful corporation spawns books relating its success to management methods that you, too, can follow.

One Friday afternoon a dozen years ago, Larry Page, one of the founders of Google, posted on the wall of the office kitchen a printed-out screenshot of Google ad results, with “These Ads Suck!” scrawled on it. Google’s AdWords engine was supposed to serve up ads that were relevant to your search terms. He was finding that if you searched for Kawasaki H1B, the vintage motorcycle, you’d get ads for lawyers who would help you with your H-1B visa. That sort of thing. By Monday morning, five engineers who weren’t even on the advertising team had, acting on their own, devised a software solution to the problem—a solution that proved to be worth billions of dollars. “It wasn’t Google’s culture that turned those five engineers into problem-solving ninjas who changed the course of the company over the weekend,” Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg—the company’s former C.E.O. and its former head of product development, respectively—write in “How Google Works” (Grand Central). “Rather it was the culture that attracted the ninjas to the company in the first place.”

What’s Google’s secret? This is an irresistible question, because Google is the most successful new business corporation of the twenty-first century. Still only fifteen years old, it is worth about three hundred and eighty billion dollars; its revenues are more than fifty billion dollars a year, and around a quarter of that is profit. More than a billion people perform a Google search every month. It’s natural to wonder whether there’s something each of us can do to emulate Google, with directionally similar, if perhaps more modest, results. What makes the Google model especially alluring is that, as Page and Sergey Brin put it in the statement that accompanied their initial public offering, ten years ago, “Google is not a conventional company.” Getting very rich is always fascinating, but getting very rich while proclaiming that you’re breaking the rules about how to run a business is even more so. Every publishing season seems to bring books about how to capture some of the Google magic. The new crop includes not just “How Google Works” but also “Think and Grow Digital” (McGraw-Hill), by Joris Merks-Benjaminsen, a Google executive who holds the title of Benelux Head of Branding Solutions & Innovation, and, coming soon, “Work Rules! Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead” (Twelve), by Laszlo Bock, Google’s senior vice-president of people operations.

“Think and Grow Digital” is presented as a guide for “millennials” to finding their way in the beginning and middle stages of a business career, so it’s filled with references to its intended audience’s youth and technological savvy—their “brains are different”—and to the bother of having to work with people who are middle-aged. Merks-Benjaminsen confesses that he used to see such people as “old, gray, resistant guys, stuck in their old-fashioned business thinking,” but he has learned to become more compassionate: “Place yourself in the position of those who had limited access to the Internet and computers during the first 20 to 50 years of their lives and try to imagine how much new stuff they have to digest in order to understand what you are saying.” But the book is filled with maxims, slogans, charts, and other catchy ways of imparting lessons that even a non-millennial can apply. We learn Google-isms like “moonshot thinking” and “the funnel of focus.” And we get a closing proclamation: “Greatness is for everyone.”

Books like these obviously have some debt to the old and well-established tradition of American success literature; Merks-Benjaminsen’s title echoes Napoleon Hill’s 1937 “Think and Grow Rich,” which is still very much in print. And, for at least a few readers, the burnished tale of Larry Page’s scrawled protest and the “problem-solving ninjas” who dealt with it may bring to mind Elbert Hubbard’s 1899 essay “A Message to Garcia,” which for decades was an inescapable part of the national culture. Hubbard’s “preachment” took off from a possibly apocryphal incident during the Spanish-American War: the President must get a message to General Garcia, the leader of our insurgent friends, who is somewhere in the mountains of Cuba. When a fellow named Rowan is given this daunting charge, well, by God, he carries it out. He doesn’t ask why; he doesn’t ask for Garcia’s exact location; he doesn’t look for someone else who might do the task instead. Hubbard was celebrating success, and he was celebrating employees with the goodness and the gumption “to be loyal to a trust, to act promptly, concentrate their energies on a thing—‘Carry a message to Garcia.’ ” (Having grown up in the culturally lagging Deep South, I was raised on this sacred text. The director of my summer camp read “A Message to Garcia” to us every year, in front of a mystically flickering bonfire, and we went away properly awed.)...MORE
HT: The Big Picture