Today, we’re continuing part 1 of our recent interview with Shona Brown, where she sat with our team and shared insights about objectives and key results (OKRs) and operational excellence from her time at Google. Full disclosure: Shona is also on the BetterWorks Board of Directors.
BetterWorks Team: How much should a company be looking internally versus externally for ideas?
Shona: My advice for leaders is to purposefully choose what you want to do (and particularly what product you want to build) and then only look outside the company frequently enough to not get blinders. Generally speaking, an informed worldview is a useful and positive thing. That said, there are different ways to interpret this advice. I don’t think companies should focus on what competitors are doing and try to define their own priorities in reaction to what is going on externally. Rather leaders should begin with a mindset that they know their company best and they know best what their company should do.You could argue that Google was maybe too extreme in this area. Let me explain. Historically, the conversation internally was devoid of external, competitor information. We focused on understanding user needs, not on how competitors did something. That was very positive from a product perspective. And I would argue the only way to develop a transformational product strategy, certainly in the technology sector, is to take this approach. From an operational perspective, however, our emphasis on “built-by-Google” and our unwillingness to outsource some non-critical operations was a negative. For example, we wasted some important employee time earlier on in creating mundane operational tools. If I speak generally, then yes, I’d say looking outside your business is a valuable thing to do, just make sure it is in the right way.
BetterWorks Team: How can companies optimize their teams for operational excellence? Are you seeing any new trends in this area?
Shona: I would say that having a corporate officer responsible for business strategy and operations as well as the people agenda was highly unusual, but I feel for Google it was a tremendous advantage in our operational excellence. In my role at Google I understood the business needs and I could drive all aspects of our people strategy with that in mind. I don’t see any broad trend in other companies taking this approach and I’m not sure why.I do, however, see organizations making talent a much bigger part of strategic discussions. Human Resources is moving to a place at the executive table—some becoming direct CEO reports. Certain companies have historically taken line executives who own P&Ls and moved them into HR roles. I recruited Laszlo Bock to Google from a company that operated in this way. There is definitely a greater talent and HR connection in business now than there was 20 years ago, and you are starting to see more Chief Talent Officers report into CEOs.
BetterWorks Team: Google is big on the objectives & key results (OKRs) model of organizational alignment. How natural is setting goals and gaining alignment for other companies?
Shona: Most global enterprises have some goal setting processes already in place—but not necessarily the way BetterWorks thinks about it. Many enterprise goals today are tied to financial performance. Public companies need to track their financial performance very tightly. Expanding goal setting to include more employees and more activities, beyond direct financial metrics, and doing so with a transparent approach may be less natural for some large enterprises.In smaller companies, what BetterWorks provides is a natural offering. Some companies may overvalue chaos and worry that goal setting might feel like a constraint on creativity. But I believe most small companies will immediately understand the benefit of setting company wide goals and improving goal alignment.
BetterWorks Team: What has Google learned about having so many different products yet keeping everything tied together?
Shona: Google is an example of the kind of culture that goal-setting software like BetterWorks is trying to support at a large scale. Google wants to grow and keep relevant while trying to remain culturally like a nimble small company. Thinking about it from a product perspective, Google started as a single platform product. As we began to introduce multiple distinct products that weren’t features of search, like Gmail on April 1, 2004, we learned that launch and iterate works well, but you can’t expect people to come back again and use something like an email service if it didn’t work the first time. We had to change our approach. We figured it out and by the time we bought YouTube, our strategy was to keep it running very independently at first and over time connect the pieces.Google has learned a lot of valuable lessons and one good one has been to keep people feeling like they are part of a smaller entity even though they work for a very large organization. This is evident even in our cafes. On campus, there are hundreds of smaller cafes that seat 200 people rather than one cafeteria where 2,000 people gather and eat.There are tradeoffs when a business grows. You gain efficiencies of scale from being bigger, but you can also experience negatives from increased bureaucracy, friction, and loss of agility. In some businesses, scale wins every time as the most important factor. But in other industries agility may be more important than scale. High-quality, strategic leaders think about that balance every quarter.
BetterWorks Team: What do you think worries big companies?
Shona: Every company that is getting bigger is worried about being slower. This might be more acceptable in some industries, but it’s not in technology. Everyone in the organization has to know what he or she is working toward and why. Software that can help keep “all hands on deck” could be game changing and transformative for a lot of organizations.The BetterWorks team would like to thank Shona Brown for taking time to share her thoughts on what it means for companies to be operationally excellent.