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Mar 14, 2011

Leave it to Google to be the company that believed they could figure out how to build a better boss.

According to a story in Sunday’s New York Times, the effort was code named Project Oxygen, and Google applied the same sort of rigorous technical evaluation to the project — “analyzing performance reviews, feedback surveys, and nominations for top-manager awards….(correlating) phrases, words, praise and complaints” — that they might apply to, say, figuring out how to provide news without involving any human editors.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Google developing an algorithm that could somehow take this very human activity and make it something very different. They found that the “Eight Habits of Highly Effective Google Managers” that they came up with were, as the Times put it, “forehead-slappingly obvious” so much so that “it’s hard to believe that it took the mighty Google so long to figure them out.”

What Google found out about management

Here are a few examples:

  • Have a clear vision and strategy for the team.”
  • “Help your employees with career development.”
  • Don’t be a sissy: Be productive and results-oriented.”

“My first reaction was, that’s it?” says Laszlo Bock, Google’s vice president for “people operations,” which is Googlespeak for human resources.

The thing that surprised Bock, but will probably come as no surprise to most HR people and managers who deal with engineers or technical people, is this, the Times reports:

Bock’s group found that technical expertise — the ability, say, to write computer code in your sleep — ranked dead last among Google’s big eight. What employees valued most were even-keeled bosses who made time for one-on-one meetings, who helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers, and who took an interest in employees’ lives and careers.

In the Google context, we’d always believed that to be a manager, particularly on the engineering side, you need to be as deep or deeper a technical expert than the people who work for you,” Bock says. “It turns out that that’s absolutely the least important thing. It’s important, but pales in comparison. Much more important is just making that connection and being accessible.”

Pardon me while I sit here shocked for a moment, because it isn’t much of a generalization to say that engineers and people with a strong technical bent are usually terrible when it comes to people skills — the very keys to a strong manager. That Bock and the Google team would find that employees ranked technical expertise so low in a survey about management skills shows just how deep in the sand their heads are over at Google when it comes to having some intuitive knowledge of what makes good managers tick.

Putting Project Oxygen to work

Think I’m broad-brushing technical people this way? Maybe, but I’ve dealt with way too many tech people to not see that this lack of a people-skills gene is probably what makes someone a good engineer in the first place. And, I am reminded of it every time I deal with my Boeing engineer neighbor who seems to have zero capacity to deal with anyone else on the block the way normal, personable humans would.

The Times story points out that Google WAS able to apply their legendary focus to Project Oxygen they way they do anything else they set their sights on.

HR has long run on gut instincts more than hard data. But a growing number of companies are trying to apply a data-driven approach to the unpredictable world of human interactions…

In Project Oxygen, the statisticians gathered more than 10,000 observations about managers — across more than 100 variables, from various performance reviews, feedback surveys and other reports. Then they spent time coding the comments in order to look for patterns…

Once Google had its list, the company started teaching it in training programs, as well as in coaching and performance review sessions with individual employees. It paid off quickly.

“We were able to have a statistically significant improvement in manager quality for 75 percent of our worst-performing managers,” Bock says…

Google executives say they aren’t crunching all this data to develop some algorithm of successful management. The point, they say, is to provide the data and to make people aware of it, so that managers can understand what works and, just as important, what doesn’t.”

Effective leadership? Not much has changed

I’m all for anything that can help improve management and managers, because we don’t have a lot of Peter Drucker’s out there today who are breaking new ground and revealing wonderful new insights. And Drucker would probably be amused by this very interesting observation gleaned from Google’s Project Oxygen efforts — when it comes to management and leadership, not much has really changed.

“Although people are always looking for the next new thing in leadership,” said D. Scott DeRue, a management professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business who talked to The New York Times, “Google’s data suggest that not much has changed in terms of what makes for an effective leader.”

THAT may actually be the most important thing to come out of Project Oxygen. Yes, Google will undoubtedly be able to improve their managers with the research and insights they will get from the project, but in the end, they will know something else important too: management ain’t rocket science, nor is it computer engineering or something that can be solved and perfected with a snazzy new algorithm.

No, managing and leading people is about listening, helping them with what they need to do a better job, taking time when they need it, showing them where everything is going, and staying consistent.

I love Google, but isn’t it just like them to spend so much time, effort, and energy on something they could have gotten from just talking to any smart HR person — or cracking open a Peter Drucker book or two?

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