Every time I speak somewhere, people ask me what I think scares Google the most. Is it Microsoft? Abandonment of net neutrality? Some new startup that will out-Google Google? While those are all indeed worth attention, and while I do not speak for Google in this blog, my biggest fear is that Google could become a big company.
I don’t mean big just in terms of headcount. Google has grown at a staggering pace as the company has added amazing talent to offices around the world allowing for even more cool products to get built. Yet, as the company gets bigger, the temptation is to introduce additional layers of management and bureaucracy and these are the enemies of innovation.
I have worked with engineers from a variety of household-name big companies. Like some universal truth that transcends language, national borders, industries, or even market cycles, I hear the same two things from those in organizations that are no longer innovating: 1) They never get to work on teams smaller than 200 people and 2) They haven’t launched anything in years. Why? They are suffocated by myriad processes, hierarchies, templates, forms, and flow charts.
The leaders of Google have realized, from the earliest days, that the company’s own growth would be the biggest challenge and have toiled unflinchingly to build scalable and transparent systems for encouraging the freedom to innovate and collaborate without jumping through some of the unnecessary traditional company hoops. I deeply respect the team that runs Google for focusing on this from the beginning and emphasizing it as a core company value.
Nevertheless, the potential big company pitfalls are always looming. As the size grows, I see colleagues, particularly those who join Google from other companies, tempted to carve out fiefdoms and mandate SWOT analyses and extensive Excel spreadsheets littered with three letter acronyms. I have seen a few mid-level bosses evoke the traditions of Japanese management and schedule “pre-meetings” to plan, discuss, and approve what will be planned, discussed and approved at the actual meeting itself. MBA-speak creeps into the parlance and these new managers require the filing of more and more TPS reports.
The good news? Google’s culture of letting engineers and product folks build great stuff that users want is still winning the day. However, the company needs to remain vigilant and never hesitate to clear the way for inspired people to create the products we all love. For those of you from Google who read my blog, thanks in advance for your help in keeping it a place where freedom to innovate is the rule and not the exception.