Google is often held up as an example of what an office–and an office culture–should look like. Many companies look to the search giant for ideas on how to engage employees and create a fun environment that makes people excited to come to work.
But Google is also an example of something perhaps even more important: how to approach problem solving at a company.
In a Harvard Business Review article, Greg Satell, an expert on digital strategy and innovation, points to one specific example of this problem-solving culture. As the story goes, in 2002 co-founder Larry Page walked into the office kitchen and hung up printouts of pages featuring results from Google’s AdWords engine. At the top he wrote, “THESE ADS SUCK.”
“In most companies, this would be seen as cruel–an arrogant executive publicly humiliating his hapless employees for shoddy work–but not at Google,” Satell writes. “In fact, his unusual act was a show of confidence, defining a tough problem that he knew his talented engineers would want to solve.”
Page’s tactic worked, and within days Google engineers had improved AdWords, sending the ad engine on its way to becoming the leader in the space. According to Satell, the key was that Page focused on the problem itself, not the people behind it. He shared four different explanations for why this works.
1. “People want to do a good job.”
Employees don’t intend to screw up, so yelling at them for mistakes isn’t going to get you anywhere. Instead of Page heading over to the ad team and screaming at them, he simply addressed a problem and understood that his employees, being human, would be motivated to fix it.
2. “Given enough eyeballs, every bug is shallow.”
By hanging up the printout in the kitchen, Page was engaging the whole office in the problem, as opposed to one specific team. Maybe someone not on the ad team would have a brilliant idea. Two heads are better than one.
3. “People perform best at tasks that interest them.”
Page could have brought the problem to specific employees, but instead he opened it up to anyone who was interested in trying to solve it. That means that the people who are more passionate about the specific issue would jump on it, most likely leading to better results.
4. “Great leaders provide a sense of mission and purpose.”
Yes, it’s important for employees to have skills and talent, but that won’t produce results if they’re not directed by passionate leaders who can motivate them. It’s about creating a culture at work that inspires employees to be productive and effective. “When [Page] posted that note in the Google kitchen, he knew the culture at Google would go to work,” Satell writes. “He didn’t have to spell out what to do because he’d already created a company with a mission and a purpose.”