Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Work Rules - Laszlo Bock

Laszlo Bock is Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google, a company with more than 50000 employees spread over 70 offices across the world and one that consistently wins the best company-to-work-for kind of awards. What makes Google so special is its people, who seem to be shaped by its culture - which in turn is shaped by its core values coming from the vision of its founders. Google is what it is not because it pays well and gives free lunches but because of  'why' it does what it does. Just as Eric Schmidt and Rosenberg shared their thoughts in their book 'How Google Works', Bock shares his insights in this book. Google seems to be doing everything in exactly the opposite way from what we are used to.

Do The Right Things With People - Regardless of Cost
"Leading with your heart can make a successful business. Our employees are empowered around this vision to give their best and leave no customer unhappy. And we always make our decisions to do the right thing with our people, regardless of cost" - Jack DePeters, SVP  Store Operations at Wegmans, a grocery store chain. It may read like an aspiration to most but Bock's book goes on to prove how anyone can do just that and build and run a highly successful business. If one can get the importance -of this sentence in the right spirit, one is on the journey to success in business.

In Google, Bock says, managers are not there to hire and fire people, but to serve their teams. The idea is that when they serve the team, the team performance improves. Managers empower employees, provide learning opportunities beyond the job and increase reliance on the  team for results.

People are Fundamentally Good
Building exceptional teams starts with the founder(s) beliefs about people. It requires a belief that people are fundamentally good. Treat people like owners (and not machines). Give them freedom, share information and let them run the show."If you give people freedom, they will amaze you."Freedom is crucial for excellence Bock emphasizes.

Successful companies share a sense of what they produce, who they are and what they want to be with their employees. They think of the main concerns of their employees. They make work meaningful, allow employees to pursue their passions and make their families feel cared for. As the leader you must believe that everybody has great opportunities - and create them.

This becomes the leader's main job (not proving he is right). To treat people like they are good and to involve them in what the company is aspiring to do. Seems simple but not many do it.

Culture Eats Strategy For Breakfast
I love this line that both the Google books quote - "Culture eats strategy for breakfast".

Investing in and building a great culture is a great strategy because a great culture is a self-correcting mechanism that keeps the core values, vision and behavior in place over the years through its many guardians.

A group's culture can be studied in 3 ways.
1) by looking at its artifacts such as physical space and behavior
2) by surveying the beliefs and values espoused by the groups members and
3) digging deeper into underlying assumptions behind the values.
The artifacts are visible but it is the values and assumptions underneath that matter much more. What are your core beliefs about people, freedom, trust?

Google's Core Values - Simple, Tough
Google is a great place to work in or what they simply call 'fun' place. The underlying values and assumptions that make it so is stuff that most people will not have the courage to put up as core values - because all of them are about letting go of the ego and control.

Here they are
1) Focus on the user and all else will follow
2) It's best to do one thing really, really well
3) Fast is better than slow
4) Democracy on the web works
5) You don't need to be at your desk to need an answer
6) You can make money without doing evil
7) There's always more information out there
8) The need for information crosses all borders
9) Great just isn't good enough
10) You can be serious without a suit

A Mission is more than a business goal. It should never be achieved. It should always be ahead, an ideal.

The Leader's Job - Create An Inspiring Aspiration 
To get the best talent it's the leaders job to create an aspiration that is inspiring for talented people. Employees must see the link between their work and the company objectives. It's important for a motivated employee to be part of something useful, something that is making a difference to the world.

One way to demonstrate the importance of their work and make employees understand how that they are making a difference to the world is to get employees to meet actual users. I have heard this many times - that when a company's employee meets the end user or hears of how their (employee's) work is impacting users with their work, they get more motivated. Having workers meet the people they are helping (customers) is the greatest motivation (meet the customer). There is nothing more powerful than that. I don't know in what context this came up in the book but it's a practise company's can make - specially when jobs are tedious and monotonous.

Share Information Freely - Trust People, They are good
One way to live and practise the idea that people are good is to share information with them without fear - if you trust people you would share information freely (no wonder governments fear sharing information). To involve people, to build trust, be transparent or as Bock says - default to open. By sharing data, performance improves. Everyone gets involved.

The key is that all of us want to control our destinies. As an employee I would like to know all the information I can about the place I am committing my work and my time to - so I can plan it best. To make employees feel that control, share information. And give them voice.
Most companies fail here again.

The cultural cornerstones that helped Google in building a strong culture are -
Mission (one that draws you to work as if its a calling)
Voice (giving the employees a voice)

Culture matters most when it is tested. Much like character in a person. It's only when the stakes are rising that true and strong character shows up. Words are then separated from actual actions. Building strong cultures requires one to invest relentlessly in their people.

Organizations are about people and most leaders (or corporates as they like to call themselves) seem to forget this. There are many words to describe the actions and purposes, hardware and software, but at its heart are people who add soul to the work. And its an understanding of this soul that makes magic. Its vitally important for every top manager to understand their own beliefs about people. Few have shown a capacity to love their people. The one's who have shown that capacity have created miracles.

Hire the best people
To build great companies get the best people. But its not just that one factor - of great players coming together - but other factors too. Get great players, but unless they play as a team, it will never work. One half of the story is to get great players - the second half is to get them connected to the mission, get them to play a team and let them loose.

Bock's advise is to invest in hiring, not training. It's a bit presumptuous to brush aside training completely especially since there's not much to back his claim of training being ineffective because of poor design and delivery. Especially when you come back with the concept of deliberate practise as a means to get better performances (it is training too). I agree with him partly on the hiring aspect. Especially the bit about the amount of time one has to invest to hire the right people (not the most qualified but the best fits).

Hire carefully, slowly
The detail to which Google goes to hire people shows how important hiring the right people is to them - getting different people on committees to interview potential candidates, having a way to cut out biases. The, promoters were/are involved in the process till the time the book was written or as recently as that. Clearly they want the right people to join their team.
No wonder Bock says hiring is the most important people function. His advice.

  • Hire slowly. Don't be in a rush. 
  • Hire people better than you.
To hire the best - Bock says - set a high bar for quality, find your own candidate, assess candidates objectively and give candidates a reason to join.

Ok, its simple to say, hire great people. But great people cost a bomb right? To correct that false notion Bock clarifies that Google hired people who took serious pay cuts to join the company. Bock says its not really about the money. Its about what you want to be a part of and what you want to create and how. You must give candidates a reason to join. (Resonates with the 'Start with why' concept of Simon Sinek.)

To find great people Bock says referrals are a great way. If you have great people in the company. surely they will know some other great people. Get the best referrals by being excruciatingly specific in describing what you're looking for. Use back door referrals to understand candidates better.

When candidates come for interviews don't trust your gut says Bock because we make many errors because of our biases and prejudices. Google tries to eliminate confirmation bias through a mixture of methods. Having committees with disinterested reviewers is one and trusting the wisdom of crowds is another. (Over all the best way to judge  a person's fit seems to be through a work sample test (29%), general cognitive ability (20%) and then a structured interview - behavioral or situational.)

The approach an interviewer must take to the interview is - how does a candidate perform once he joins your team. To get a clue you could answer the candidate questions like - When did your behavior have a positive impact on your team, When did you manage your team to achieve a goal, When did you have difficulties working with team. Gives you a fair idea if the person has applied or experienced situations.

In the interview check for, in the  order of importance, general cognitive ability. leadership. googleyness and role related knowledge

Every once in a while check how the hiring process works. Never compromise.

Let the employees shape their work and the company
Power is abused - if you invest it with one person. So Google takes that power to hire and fire away from the manager. It tries to eliminate status symbols - like titles. The idea is to create a trusting space where the team members are free to express, to share and contribute and where managers are supposed to find ways for people to shape their work and company. To make it even more fairer and transparent, all decisions are made on data, and not opinions.

While on freedom, or a sense of it, Google gives their employees 20% time to run their own projects - at their own time and cost. This is a wonderful way to work and to keep your passions alive. You don't have to retire and then start working on your projects. It requires a lot of confidence to do that and it works. But for all its experiments Google runs what Bock calls 1% tests or sample tests to see how they are working before launching it full scale.

"What managers miss is that every time they give up a little control, it creates a wonderful opportunity for their team to step up, while giving the managers themselves more time for new challenges."
Ah, it's such a fine thing. So simple, yet so effective. But you must learn to hold the balance and let go.

Making People Perform
People live up to their expectations, little or high..and I believe its true.

If one focuses on personal growth - most performance issues are sorted out. Performance Management as a process is not a substitute for actually managing people Bock says. You must help the employees to perform and grow. Not assign ranks and threaten them or stress them out.

To help people grow he says one of the most powerful tasks (and one of the most basic) s the setting of clear goals - OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) must be set for both quality and efficiency - and agreed upon by both manager an sub. The goals should stretch the employee.
On the process of ratings he suggests the use of draft ratings, calibration process to finalise the ratings, use of peer feedback, involve the wisdom of crowds. While giving feedback, he advocates a common sense method of splitting rewards conversations from development conversations and leave the conversation in new hope.
 Assigning, calibrating, communicating of the ratings are the key processes.

Bock fine tuned the Performance Management system for better results - i.e. and experimented with it. While experimenting he was clear on the following principles - First do no harm, Ensure fairness, Avoid defensiveness and promote learning

Improving Team Performance - The 2 Tails
To improve the team performance don't just focus on the top performers but focus on the bottom 5% too. If the bottom improves by 10%, it adds heavily to the overall score. Bock calls them the 2 tails - top vs bottom.

Manager quality was the single best predictor of whether employees would stay or leave.The 8 attributes of a good manager that a survey threw up are - be  a good coach, empower your team, be interested in the team,  productive, communicate, help career development, have a clear vision  and possess important skills that help the team. 

One of the experiments was Project Oxygen that focused on the bottom 5 %. To improve performance of the bottom 5% the suggested methods were - ask questions in 1 on 1s, create checklists instead of training and create the Upward Feedback Survey (on managers).

The UFS dwelt on whether manager gives - actionable feedback to improve performance, does not micromanage, shows consideration for me as a person, keeps the team focused on priority results, shares relevant information, has had a discussion about my career development, communicates clear goals for the team, has technical expertise and is someone they would recommend. The UFS results can be shared with the team as a measure of the manager wanting to improve himself.

To manage the 2 tails - Bock invested in the PiLabs. He first identified the 2 tails, used compassionate pragmatism, invested in Pi labs (not training). Some initiatives that came out were to upgrade organization, gather data, conduct surveys, have the best in class train the others

Bock's methods require one to help those in need, put performances under a microscope and find out what they did right, use surveys and checklists, set personal example by sharing and asking for feedback

Creating the learning organization
Since corporate leaning is insufficiently targeted, delivered to the wrong people, measured incorrectly Bock suggests different ways.

Internalize the program - repeat thrice, Repetition was the key and not a one off program. Time spent vs behavior changed was another measure. Build faculty from within, Your best people should teach, Invest in courses that change behaviors.
Learning programs (4 levels of reaction) - reaction, learning, behavior and result

You can accelerate learning by breaking down skills in smaller components and providing prompt, specific, feedback. Focus on deliberate practise, have best people teach, pick courses that change behavior.

Pay unfairly - Reward The Best
Bock realizes that the most productivity comes from the top 10 people. Bock quotes someone in Google who said one great engineer is worth 300 mediocre ones. Most teams distribute the reward irrespective of the impact some people have. So Bock says its better to pay the top impacters unfairly high, not some average because their impact is so disproportionately large. But reward thoughtful failure too.

Great performers are motivated by Intrinsic rewards (mission/ focus on transparency/ freedom to experiment and fail / physical spaces that facilitate collaboration) and Extrinsic rewards (pay/ isolate accomplishment / make it easy to spread the love / reward thoughtful failure)

Bock says public recognition is a highly under utilized management tool. Make people reward each other. Have a Kudos website. Default to trust first.

The best things in life are free. One just has to be a little creative to find it and enjoy it. Use simple methods to make people happy - front gate greetings, lunch passes, kudos bag, birthday cards

Any people program should be efficient (measure and make it easy for them), community driven and high on innovation.

Find ways to say Yes says Bock. Needs courage, needs a secure person. Yes, bad stuff happens once in a  while but still persist. Be there when people need you.In their best years Google focused on its core values - focus on the user. Avoid gluttony, ostentation. Get you from here to there as fast as you can get

This could well hold for any level of people operations - personal or professional.

I like the concept of "Nudge a lot..".
"Nudge is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters peoples behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentive .. easy and cheap to use, nudges make people happier and more effective.'

To nudge people in the right direction one needs to constantly work on building trust and repeating the right behavior. Much like what Ken Blanchard suggests in his Whale Done.

One way to pick right behaviors is to ask among the peers - this person helped me when I reached out
/ involved me when I could have been helpful to or was impacted by the teams work

To easy new hires into the company culture and into work use simple techniques like - have a role and responsibility discussion (Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), connect to company's objective, performance management, ratings), match new hires with a peer buddy, help new hires build a social network, set up a boarding check once a month for 6 months and encourage open dialogue.

A checklist for new hires to do - ask questions, have 1 on 1s with managers, know your team, solicit feedback, accept challenges.

A checklist for managers on how to nudge - recognize difference between what is and what ought to be, run lots of small experiments, nudge don't shove

It's part of the growth mindset that Carol Dweck speaks about - admit mistakes, be transparent, take counsel from all directions, fix whatever is broken, find the moral in the mistake and teach it

To transform your work culture
  • Give your work meaning (shared vision, purpose, connect to an idea or value that's bigger)
  • Trust your people (transparent, honest, trust)
  • Hire only those who are better than you (be secure enough to do that, your progress depends on that)
  • Don't confuse development with managing performance
  • Focus on the two tails (keep the best performers under a microscope and try to improve the bottom 5%)
  • Be frugal and generous (the world works in paradoxes)
  • Pay unfairly (90% work comes from top 10%)
  • Nudge (we're all constantly nudged by others and are nudging some others)
  • Manage rising expectations
  • Enjoy.. .and then go back to no 1 and work again
Building a culture requires constant learning. But it's worth the effort.

People innovations require - prescient founders, fierce cultural guardians, thoughtful academic research and creative companies

People operations - strive for meaning, use data to predict and shape future, improve relentlessly, field an unconventional tea,

The job of Human Resources is to make the resources go through terrific interviews, join and feel welcome, become productive thanks to helpful programs and opportunities unfold as they work.

In Conclusion
Google does many things right and richly deserves its success. Most things that Google does point to a secure leadership. To believe in a set of core values that challenge most, to trust in people, to believe people are fundamentally good, to share information openly, to help people grow, to listen to feedback, to empower a voice, to focus on results, to take away power from a few, to trust the wisdom of crowds, to find ways to say yes, to help those in need, to pay unfairly for those who make such an impact, to allow the crowd to build a culture they want - all of them and more hint at the leader's tremendous belief in humankind and its wisdom to create what is best for itself. If one believes people are good, one must live by that belief and trust people with what you value most. Google does that. It has its moments when things don't work, but it trusts its first principles more.

It's a tough act to follow but if people have the courage and conviction to, building a great culture is as easy as reading this book.

Bock's book is well written and certainly many nice insights into how to create and maintain great teams that perform. Worth a read certainly.  

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