Innovating Government Workplaces, Lessons From Google

When you hear “government workplaces” what comes to mind? Probably not something terribly exciting.

When you hear “Google workplace,” you may imagine a young engineer riding a scooter past a ping pong table, returning to her ergonomically-designed standup desk to eat free snacks. Or something like that.

We all know the Silicon Valley stereotypes of tech companies who have bucked workplace norms. Some ideas are absurd, some seemingly obvious, and some genius. But to their credit, the intent is always to enhance human productivity and creativity. And there are lessons here for any office looking to innovate, including government workplaces.

Google’s approach has been to use data to pioneer innovative hiring and workplace practices. For over 15 years, they’ve experimented to see how their company can attract the world’s top talent, and support them in producing their best work. They are data collection experts, arguably the best in the world. Their success (i.e. employee satisfaction and success in the marketplace) is clear, having ranked #1 on Fortune’s 100 best companies to work for, 7 of the last 10 years.

Few, if any, organizations have devoted this level of time, money, and creative capital into their HR practices. Google’s Senior Vice President of People Operations, Lazslo Bock, recently published the book Work Rules, detailing this history and what Google has learned from years of experimentation.

Many of these lessons and successes are applicable to public sector organizations.

Here are some of Bock’s key lessons for facilitating better work, and ways governments can use them to start innovating right now.

1. Dilute hierarchy

While most organizations need some degree of direct authority, too much is stifling. It hampers creativity and causes people to focus on status symbols. Diluting hierarchy means leaders make more objective decisions, show more trust in their employees, and devote more resources to top priorities.

Empower managers by taking away power

Google’s HR team found that taking away power from managers actually empowers them and their teams to do better work. In a Hidden Brain podcast, Bock explains how new managers face harmful incentives:

“…as a manager, suddenly you want different things because you’re on the hook for other people’s work. So the default reaction, the very human reaction, is I’m going to control you, I’m going to tell you what to do…but what’s crazy is when we’re managers we’re also still employees. So we’re feeling both these conflicting things…and we default to…I’m going to control down, but I want freedom up.”

To combat this dynamic, Google takes away traditional forms of authority from managers. They don’t have the unilateral power to hire, promote, or fire their employees (among other things). Instead, those decisions are made in inter-departmental committees.

“If you take that away and instead tell managers: your job is to make teams effective, they’re going to do the right thing, you just coach them, you counsel them….The effect is, as a manager the only tools you’re left with is ‘how can I help?’ And when you come at it with that mindset, you actually make your teams better, because what they’re looking for from you is not control, but guidance and support.”

Government takeaway: If your managers have many unilateral powers, start by formally making one (e.g., promotion decisions) into a collaborative process.

Make HR decisions based on data, not opinions

Google’s HR team knows that personal biases and inaccurate information can cloud important decisions. That’s why they strive for collaborative and data-driven decision-making. Data dilutes hierarchy, because opinions matter less. It instills a sense of trust and fairness among employees, and frees managers to focus on other priorities.

“One of the core principles of Google has always been ‘Don’t politick. Use data.”

Lazslo Bock, Work Rules* (all further citations)

A data-driven approach takes resources, but it helps make better, fairer decisions. Every year Google sends a 100-question survey to all employees, and then uses the data to guide improvements. After 5 years, Googlers were 20% more confident in their career paths at Google and 25% happier with the pace of decision-making.

Government takeaway: Most governments don’t have a dedicated research team to collect data. Some data is better than no data. Start small and pick an area to improve. Click To Tweet For example, come up with a set of standardized interview questions for candidates applying for the same position. They might seem boring, but they’ll make your hiring process more objective and effective.

Promote transparency

Google’s mission is to make information more accessible worldwide, so it’s no surprise that internal transparency is one of the cornerstones of their culture. From day one new software developers are given access to almost all the company’s code (containing the secrets to how Google’s programs and algorithms work). And every quarter the entire company sees the same presentation made to the board of directors.

“Fundamentally, if you’re an organization that says “our people are our greatest asset” (as most do), and you mean it, you must default to open….Openness demonstrates to your employees that you believe they are trustworthy and have good judgment. And giving them more context about what is happening (and how and why) will enable them to do their jobs more effectively and contribute in ways a top-down manager couldn’t anticipate.”

When everyone knows what’s going on, they build on others’ work instead of repeating it. People come up with better ideas because they have more context. Most importantly, transparency develops a culture of trust and integrity.

Government takeaway: Take the time to explain the reasoning behind important decisions that will affect many people in the organization. A short meeting to explain and answer questions about a controversial decision will give employees a chance to work through doubts and/or improve the idea.

2. Instill Ownership

Essential to Google’s HR philosophy is the idea that when people feel a sense of ownership over their work and organization, they will do better work.

It’s not easy to instill a culture of ownership in 60,000+ person company, but it’s possible when leadership makes it a priority. Sure, they provide new employees with stock options. But at a deeper level, Google encourages all employees to act like owners. When they do, employees are more invested in the outcome of their work, and in the success of the company.

Start with a clear mission

Google’s mission is simple: to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. Mission is the first cornerstone of Google’s culture, because a clear mission gives people’s work meaning. Google’s mission inspires employees, first because it’s a moral goal (rather than a business one), and second because it’s infinite (there will always be more work to do).

“We all want our work to matter. Nothing is a more powerful motivator than to know that you are making a difference in the world…You would expect that it’s easier to consider some occupations more of a calling than others, but the unexpected discovery is that it’s all in how you think about it.”

When you know you’re part of an organization doing something you believe in, you feel more ownership and pride in what you contribute.

Government takeaway: Treat your work like a vocation. Click To Tweet Provide physical reminders of your values as an organization, and of the people you serve. For example, give employees the opportunity to visit places in the community that have been affected by their work.

Channel vertical communication

When people on the front lines know they can influence change, they are more likely to act like owners. When they know how and why things are happening, they feel respected and connected to the process.

Google holds weekly company-wide (literally all 60,000+ people) TGIF meetings to announce new hires, product and company updates. They also include 30 minutes of Q&A with the company’s founders. Anyone in the company can ask a question on any topic (questions are selected democratically through an online voting process).

“The Q&A is the part that matters most. Everything is up for question and debate, from the trivial (“Larry, now that you’re CEO, will you start wearing a suit?” The answer was a definite no), to business-related (“How much does Chromecast cost to make?”)…and the ethical (“To me, privacy includes being able to say things online without attaching my real name to them…does Google still support that kind of privacy?”) Any question is fair game, and every question deserves an answer.”

In fact, employees are encouraged to contact Google’s CEO or founders with direct feedback, questions, or concerns at any time. Frustrations are aired and brilliant ideas see the light of day. Empowering employees to drive change gives them greater reason to care about their work and about the organization.

Government takeaway: People in top leadership positions should take the time to meet people on the front lines. Click To Tweet After they see how things are operating on the ground, provide at least one channel of communication (email, Q&A meetings, an “open door” policy, etc.) for people to share ideas, thoughts, or concerns.

Encourage creative freedom

Creative freedom doesn’t just mean fulfilling your duties any which way. It also means thinking beyond you’re told to do. At Google, employees have up to 20 percent of their work time to pursue projects that interest them. Gmail and the Chromebook were both born from 20 percent time projects.

“In some ways, the idea of 20 percent time is more important than the reality of it. It operates somewhat outside the lines of formal management oversight, and always will, because the most talented and creative people can’t be forced to work.”

Google sees 20 percent time as an outlet for the brightest and most restless employees. But it gives all employees an increased sense of ownership by encouraging them to think about the company’s growth from a big picture mindset. Importantly, the creative freedom isn’t limited to 20 percent time. When managers set high expectations without micromanaging, they foster creative freedom in all aspects of work.

Government takeaway: Create a small “innovation fund” for employees to submit ideas for workplace improvements or side projects. An inter-departmental committee can pick the grant awardees every month or quarter.

3. Create a learning institution

A company like Google stays at the forefront of innovation by fostering a continuous growth mindset. Leading organizations–in any sector–are ahead of the curve because they are constantly experimenting, evaluating, and reworking their processes.

Learn from your best and worst performers

Superstars are usually doing something most people aren’t, which is why Google seeks them out and learns from them. A few years back, Google’s HR team used surveys and interviews to identify their best and worst managers. From this they created an actionable checklist for other managers to improve.

“Studying your strongest people closely and then building programs to measure and reinforce their best attributes for the entire company changes the character of your company. If you also are able to get those who struggle the most to be substantially better, you’ll have created a cycle of constant improvement.”

On the other end, it’s critical to give the lowest performing employees a pathway to improvement. Google’s HR philosophy is to identify the employees performing at the bottom 5 percent, tell them the truth about their performance, and then offer them guidance and support. This might involve extra coaching, switching teams or departments, or sometimes finding a new job altogether. These people typically move from the bottom 5 percent to average performers. Even if they end up being a bad match, Google will help them find a new organization where they can excel.

Government takeaway: Seek out struggling employees and find ways to support their success. Extra training, pairing with a mentor, or moving departments might be the key to fulfilling their capacity.

Run lots of little experiments

Part of being a learning institution is assuming that your assumptions are wrong (or at least need evidence). Google does this by gathering data on all aspects of their company, and by running experiments. Experimentation gives them more freedom to try new things, and to evaluate their decisions more accurately.

“Every office, every team, every project is an opportunity to run an experiment and learn from it…Too often, management makes a decision that applies unilaterally to the entire organization. What if management is wrong? What if someone has a better idea?…It’s crazy to me that companies don’t experiment more in this way!”

Once known for having one of the most grueling interview processes in the industry, Google’s HR team ran countless experiments to shorten and improve the process. Through trial and error, they reduced the amount of time spent on each hire by about 75%. Simultaneously, their hiring process proved better at finding candidates who end up successful at Google.

Government takeaway: Governments often run experiments through pilot programs in one part of the organization or government. If the pilot is scaled, capitalize on the opportunity for piloters to teach others what they learned in the trial period.

Treat failures like gold

While it might be easier to sweep them under the rug, mistakes provide an opportunity for valuable insight into process improvements. Over the past 15 years Google has launched over 250 failed projects. But this doesn’t hold them back. In fact, failure is a necessary and important part of innovation. Learning from failure requires intention. Click To Tweet. Here are some first steps:

Consistently evaluate and shut down ideas that aren’t working. Recognize when an idea has run its course and cut off the flow of valuable resources.

Be transparent about mistakes and encourage feedback from many sources. Mistakes lose their negative power when you’re honest about them. An organization or person shows integrity by admitting when they’re wrong and asking lots of people how they can be better.

Find the deeper lesson in the failure. Just because an idea doesn’t live on doesn’t mean the lessons shouldn’t. The most successful organizations take time to reflect on why things didn’t work out the way they thought they would, and carry those lessons into future projects.

“Those of you who, in the face of fear and failure, persevere and hold true to your principles, who interpose yourselves between the forces and faces buffeting the organization, will mold the soul of the institution with your words and deeds. And these will be the organizations that people will want to be a part of.”

Government takeaway: Communicate honestly and take accountability for mistakes. Click To Tweet Do this in person when possible, and give people the chance to share feedback if they were involved in the process.

People are fundamentally good

Google’s philosophy on how they treat their people is based on this premise:

People are fundamentally good, and if given support, autonomy, and ownership, they will produce better work.

This holds especially true for public sector employees. Surrounded by a world that celebrates fame, money, prestige, civil servants live their values in a profession of service. Government leaders who act on this premise are empowering people who have an innate desire to do good.

With this in mind, remember these three lessons for facilitating better work:

  • Dilute hierarchy
  • Instill ownership
  • Create a learning environment

Workplace innovation is no longer saved for the world’s leading companies. The next generation of public sector innovators are here, and government workplaces across the country are ripe for change.

Read: 5 TED Talks to Inspire Government Innovation

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