Artwork: Chad Hagen, Graphic Composition No. 1,2009, digital
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. (via How Google Sold Its Engineers on Management - Harvard Business Review)
- 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.
- 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?