Systems with a human touch: Can we apply Google’s model to our own businesses?

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Google’s incredible rise in less than two decades from a garage-based business to one of the world’s largest companies both induces awe and envy. Can we learn from the incredibly successful company, and apply some of the basics in our own businesses?

I’ve been mulling over this challenge for a few days now. Google appears to have mastered the challenge of combining human respect with really fine-tuned processes. In other words, if Google employees (and suppliers, and in my case, gulp, volunteers) have a sense of autonomy and independence, they’ll create more and produce better results. Yet businesses without systems and controls can run off the rails — there is a real risk of corruption when there are not healthy and carefully-planned controls.

The Google approach, intriguingly, is to test everything.  Take a small sample, or an experimental project, and give it a shot. If results are promising, extend its scope and scale. Then, if all goes well, take the initiative system-wide or make a huge bet on success (or failure).

Creativity is encouraged with the “do what you wish” day — and Google is careful to provide options for that day that require not a whole lot of creativity or skill — for example, acting as a tour guide for visitors to the Google campus.Yet you can also work on your own big dream and pull together a skunk-works project that doesn’t require management approval or oversight. You are free to create on your own time(for 20 per cent of your time).

Some of the systems at Google I know about I can’t share here because of a non-disclosure agreement.  However, others are apparent if you spend much time with the search engine. Sometimes Google tests new models perhaps with one tenth of one per cent of the search inquiries. With the scale of search activities, this type of test can still yield meaningful results — and virtually no one will notice the test.  Google is constantly testing new variations.

We won’t be able to apply the extremely fine testing in our own businesses because I doubt our sample sizes will be large enough to be valid. But we can look at a test, review, and revise model on larger processes, and perhaps in our staffing and organizational policies. Can we dare mandate a “day to do what you want” for our employees? If we do, what controls do we put in place to prevent abuse and loss of client service?  I don’t have all these answers, but am certainly interested in asking the questions.

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