the blog of dan pontefract | Book Review of WORK RULES: Insights From Inside Google
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Book Review of WORK RULES: Insights From Inside Google

workrulesI’ve been eagerly awaiting this book for some time.

Not in the literal sense. After all, Amazon delivered a hardcopy version to my front door in what must have been 37 seconds.

No, I’m referring to my anticipation in a more figurative way.

Nine years ago, Laszlo Bock became head of People Operations at Google.

Nine days ago, Laszlo’s book, Work Rules! Insights From Inside Google, was delivered to my home by a man clad entirely in brown.

My wait was over, and it was now time to sink my teeth into the book that Daniel Coyle calls, “an all-access backstage pass to one of the smartest organizations on the planet.” High praise indeed. Did it measure up? Was the book a playbook of sorts for others to learn from, and follow?

Google has won just about every award imaginable when it comes to “great places to work” and if there was one book that might help everyone understand why, I was hoping it would be Laszlo Bock’s.

By page 11 we were on the right track.

Bock writes:

The most talented people on the planet are increasingly physically mobile, increasingly connected through technology, and–importantly–increasingly discoverable by employers.

I was increasingly enjoying my new book purchase.

He continues:

This global cadre want to be in high-freedom companies, and talent will flow to those companies. And leaders who build the right kind of environments will be magnets for the most talented people on the planet.

These two paragraphs encapsulate the overarching thought leadership found throughout the book. Laszlo defends the rights of employees, arguing persuasively that they deserve to “run the asylum” – a place of refuge, as he reminds us. Employees are smart and they need not be coddled, commanded or controlled by power monger managers. “This is why we (Google),” he writes, “take as much power away from managers as we can.” Laszlo (and Google) believe employees will seek out organizations that provide an open, collaborative and innovative environment, so why not make the organizational culture one where “power” is held by the masses versus the few.

More importantly, perhaps, Bock asserts throughout the book that when employees are given freedom, “they will surprise, delight and amaze you.”

The word “freedom” is arguably the subliminal message hidden within the book. Indeed, Laszlo pushes you to think about reshaping your organization as a “high-freedom environment.” A perfect example is surfaced when on the topic of “code health.” As an engineering company, Google has thousands of engineers and millions of lines of software code. “We could have set company-wide goals for code health,” Bock writes, “or our CEO could have just mandated that everyone had to focus on code health for the next month.”

A high-freedom environment doesn’t mandate from above, nor does it control the masses. It empowers. It uses the community of employees to further fuel the business. If you’re an innovation company, as Google is, should the ideas come from the C-Suite? In parallel, should an organization’s ideas on how to run the business come from the C-Suite only as well?

In the case of “code health”, Laszlo recalls how a group of engineers got together (on their own) to sort out a means to remedying the problem of “code health”. This manifested after a problem was highlighted in their internal feedback and engagement survey, called “Googlegeist.”

As a result of the employees getting together, a number of opportunities for improvement were brainstormed and eventually implemented across Google, including Tech Talks, embedding “code health” into performance management practices and promotions, as well as “Citizenship Awards,” which were inaugurated to recognize peers and leaders of healthy software code.

The result?

Engineers at Google are now 34% “more confident that time spent improving code health will be rewarded.” It’s but one example of many that Bock highlights around what I thought to be the underlying message of “high-freedom environment.”

But what about those actual Google Work Rules?

There are fourteen chapters in the book, where the rules are nested. Bock runs the gamut, waxing lyrical through 370 pages on traditional HR topics such as compensation, recruitment, learning and performance management and non-traditional (to some) rules on concepts such as culture, health, community and what I felt to be a very refreshing rule and chapter, “It’s Not All Rainbows and Unicorns.”

Bock uses this chapter to highlight the fact Google (and any organization) is going to make mistakes. The chapter is replete with examples of human misbehaviour (at Google, no less) that have to do with entitlements, performance, values, ethics and transparency. In the end, Bock reminds the reader that humans are prone to mistakes, but “it’s in the organizations with the strongest values” where mistakes are learned from, not used as a basis for shutting down the “high-freedom environment” quest. It’s a wonderful rule, one that reminds me of a similar thought we’ve embedded into our culture at TELUS, echoed by our Executive Chair, Darren Entwistle: “There is tuition value in mistakes.

The book is a true masterpiece. There are boatloads of stories from within Google, as well as great anecdotes from other organizations and other experiences that Laszlo has witnessed. There is data (but not too much data) and no less than 259 references. The rules make such sense, I can see the book becoming a key reading in MBA programs going forward. The final gem from the book is in fact the final chapter, “
What You Can Do Starting Tomorrow.”

If you’re looking for a quick summary guide on ten steps (and a quick summary of the Work Rules!) that can potentially transform your organization, team or workplace, Bock highlights them here, including:

1. Give your work meaning. I couldn’t agree more, as Bock writes, “everyone wants their work to have purpose.”

2. Trust your people. Trust is one of the 15 leadership attributes I wrote about in FLAT ARMY, so once again, I’m in complete agreement with Laszlo.

3. Hire only people who are better than you. And importantly, “hire by committee.”

4. Don’t confuse development with managing performance. Development is an ongoing conversation, not an annual measurement.

5. Focus on the two tails. Bock believes the organization should focus on the very, very good (power law distribution theory) and the very, very bad. For the good, learn everything you can from them. For the bad, help them learn, refocus or if all else fails, exit them.

6. Be frugal and generous. Not everything has to cost money, from a development, learning, inspirational perspective.

7. Pay unfairly. 90% or more of the value on your teams comes from the top 10%, so pay them accordingly. (A new-ish take on the Pareto Principle aided by the “power law” distribution theory.)

8. Nudge. In essence, be a pest such that you are pushing collaborative, sharing behaviour.

9. Manage the rising expectations. There is tuition value in mistakes.

10. Enjoy! And then go back to No. 1 and start again. “Building a great culture and environment requires constant learning and renewal.”

If there is one aspect in the book that I felt was missing, it was highlighted by a story Laszlo surfaced regarding Google’s performance management system. It wasn’t my concern about performance management itself (he deftly depicts the changes Google made to performance management, in Chapter 7), it was how Bock retold a story when he had to ask his assistant at 6pm on a Thursday to arrange meetings so he could speak to forty different managers about the pending performance management changes. The meetings were to occur that same night.

It’s a minor point, but perhaps in a follow-up book, Laszlo could highlight how life-work balance and time management principles are demonstrated by him, and at Google in general. In a world where employees are constantly being asked to do “more with less”, coupled by increasing demands on their time through projects, requests and of course “all things digital” like email and social, I was left wondering how the concept of “time” is handled by Laszlo and Google.

I once wrote a post entitled, “Why I’d Work With Google’s Laszlo Bock”. As I devoured WORK RULES!, I kept thinking about that post. It’s still true. Laszlo is a rare breed, and I believe it behooves you to pick up a copy and read for yourself what a role model he has become for leaders of any stripe, of any level, in any organization.

My summary?

Work Rules! rules.

__________

Dan Pontefract is the author of FLAT ARMY: Creating a Connected and Engaged Organization and is Chief Envisioner at TELUS Transformation Office. His next book, DUAL PURPOSE: Redefining the Meaning of Work, will publish November 10, 2015.

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