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Book Summary – Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead

readingraphics January 5, 2018

What’s behind Google’s phenomenal success and why do they do what they do? In “Work Rules!”, Laszlo Bock shares his insider perspective on what makes Google tick and how you and your company can duplicate some of these winning ideas.

Bock joined Google as the head of People Operations and saw the company grow from 6,000 staff in 2006 to 60,000 staff in 2016. This book captures his interpretation of the work rules and philosophies behind Google’s tremendous success. In particular, he explains how Google has built such a dynamic culture, attracts top global talents and achieves outstanding performance.  He breaks down what it really means (in terms of strategies and processes) to empower people, hire the best and engage in continuous improvement. In our full 18-page summary, we’ve organized these insights into 4 key categories:

In this article, we’ll briefly outline some of these ideas. For the full mojo, do get a copy of the book, or get a detailed overview with our complete book summary bundle.

Google’s “high-freedom” workplace is built on the belief that people are fundamentally good. It trusts people to do their best and treats them as owners rather than machines or units to be managed.

In any organization, the founders play a big role in molding the culture. However, you don’t need to start a company to be a founder. Although Google’s founders (Larry Page and Sergey Brin) strongly influenced Google’s culture, the biggest impact they made was to nurture other “founders” in Google, but giving Googlers the freedom to shape the company. The key is creating change to start thinking yourself as a founder and act like one.

In the bookfull summary, we also explain the 3 key pillars behind Google’s culture—mission, transparency and voice—and how they help to free Googlers to deliver amazing results.

When you think of “performance management”, do you think of performance ratings and year-end appraisals? Most companies have become so dependent on systems and scores to evaluate their employees that they’ve lose sight of the real goal—to shape behaviors and help employees do better.  There are at least 3 strategies that stand out with Google’s unusual approach to performance management and improvement:

Focus on personal growth, not ratings and rewards. To help your team to improve, you need to do much more than rate and rank them. In the book, Bock details how Google sets objectives and key results (“OKRs”), measures performance, and use use calibration and peer feedback to ensure fairness. For example, after the direct managers assign a draft rating, groups of 5-10 managers gather to review all their employees’ ratings together—this reduces individual bias, improve perceived fairness, and sets shared performance expectations. To avoid defensiveness and to promote learning, Google separates discussions about learning & development (which are about intrinsic motivation and should be done regularly) from discussions about performance evaluation (which are about extrinsic rewards like bonuses and pay raise, and are typically done annually). You can get a detailed overview of these tips and examples in our complete summary.

Focus on the “Two Tails”.  Most companies treat performance like a normal distribution curve: those at the top are rewarded, those at the bottom are removed, and the rest are labelled as average. Google found it most rewarding to focus on its 2 tails, i.e. its best and worst performing employees. Your top 5% are the best people to teach you what works specifically for your company; study them closely then build programs to measure and duplicate their best attributes.  As for your bottom 5%, it’s wasteful to remove them just because they aren’t performing as well as the rest. Assuming you’ve hired the right people, then it pays to focus your interventions on this minority that’s struggling (rather than on everyone)—if you can move someone from the 5th percentile to the 50th percentile, it’d mean a huge jump in his/her contribution.  In the bookfull summary, we share more examples and insights on how these are executed at Google.

Use “extreme rewards”.  A top performer is worth many times an average one. Yet, most companies use market data to develop fixed salary bands for different positions, and great performers often find their contributions outgrowing their rewards and eventually leave the company. There are 4 uncommon principles that guide Google’s approach to rewards and compensation: pay unfairly (allowing huge variances in rewards to reflect huge variances in contribution), reward with experiences (not just money), allow peer rewards (including cash awards), and reward risk-taking (even if those risks or projects fail). We explain each of these principles in more detail in the bookfull summary.

There are 2 key ways to build a great team: hire great people (in the 90th percentile) and let them do great work, or hire average people and try to make them into 90th percentile performers. Bock recommends the former, i.e. invest your limited resources on attracting, selecting and nurturing only the right hires. It’s hard to attract and filter top talents, but the effort/resources are worth it since (a) a top performer is worth many times an average one, and (b) it’s an uphill battle to try to transform an average performer to a star performer.

In the bookfull summary, we zoom in on specific tips on finding extraordinary candidates (including how to define “right hires”, use staff referrals vs other recruitment channels, use groups vs individual evaluators, and what Google has learned from building its in-house hiring capabilities).

At Google, line managers do not select their own team members. Once potentialt candidates are identified, a separate, qualified team takes over to select the best hires. These dedicated recruiters know what to look for in resumes/candidates from different backgrounds, and are familiar with jobs across Google so candidates who’re unsuitable for 1 job may be placed for another. In the bookfull 18-page summary, we also explain the combination of assessment techniques used by Google, and how they build in safeguards to ensure quality during the hiring process.

There’s a lot of buzz and hype around concepts like employee empowerment, training, learning and development. However, what do they really mean in terms of concrete strategies? Bock shares Google’s perspective and approach, with many interesting ideas you can apply in your organization. • Build a Learning Organization. Most training resources are wasted since there’s no measurement of actual learning and behavioral change. Don’t look at training dollars or hours; instead, focus on deliberate practice, get your best people to teach, and invest only in courses that are proven to change behavior/results.  [In the bookfull summary, we elaborate on each of these points, including how to use split testing to establish if a course actually works].
Empower People. It’s actually not easy to give freedom to people, since there’s a natural tendency for managers to amass power and employees to follow orders. Bock shares how Google seeks to eliminate power and status symbols, make decisions based on data (vs managers’ opinions), decentralize decision-making and give people freedom to shape their work and make an impact.  [In the bookfull summary, we touch on various initiatives at Google, including how you can start to empower your own team].
Nudge people along. Small changes (e.g. charging a $1 fee or changing the physical environment) can transform human behavior. By becoming conscious and deliberate about the cues and signals they send, organizations can positively influence employee decisions and outcomes, both at work and in their personal lives. Google specifically “nudges” its people to make better decisions to become healthier, wealthier and wiser. [In the bookfull summary, we zoom in on some examples of how simple nudges (e.g. sending an email or changing the size of the plates at Google’s cafes) could change concrete behaviors.

Most of these ideas above can be duplicated by any company to improve work experience. It’s important to remember that Google’s programs aren’t perfect, and it is still refining them even today. The key is to apply what works for you, and constantly experiment and refine your approach to find your winning formula.

In the book, Bock shares many of Google’s mistakes and learning points, including how they battle habituation and the sense of entitlement, regularly prune its innovations and shut down projects to focus resources in areas where they can achieve more as a team. He also explains why these programs effectively cost little to nothing, since they help to fulfill 3 goals of efficiency, community and innovation, all of which benefit both Googlers and the company.

The book is packed with stories and examples to help us understand Google’s philosophies, why it does certain things and chooses not to do others. Do get a copy of the book for the full details, get our full book summary for an overview of the various ideas and tips, or get more details at www.workrules.net.

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Learn the powerful philosophies and strategies behind Google’s success!

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