Google’s Quest to Build a Better Boss

IN early 2009, statisticians inside the Googleplex here embarked on a plan code-named Project Oxygen.

Their mission was to devise something far more important to the future of Google Inc. than its next search algorithm or app.

They wanted to build better bosses.

So, as only a data-mining giant like Google can do, it began analyzing performance reviews, feedback surveys and nominations for top-manager awards. They correlated phrases, words, praise and complaints.

Later that year, the “people analytics” teams at the company produced what might be called the Eight Habits of Highly Effective Google Managers.

Now, brace yourself. Because the directives might seem so forehead-slappingly obvious — so, well, duh — it’s hard to believe that it took the mighty Google so long to figure them out:

“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.”

The list goes on, reading like a whiteboard gag from an episode of “The Office.”

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

But then, Mr. Bock and his team began ranking those eight directives by importance. And this is where Project Oxygen gets interesting.

For much of its 13-year history, particularly the early years, Google has taken a pretty simple approach to management: Leave people alone. Let the engineers do their stuff. If they become stuck, they’ll ask their bosses, whose deep technical expertise propelled them into management in the first place.

But Mr. 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,” Mr. 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.”

Project Oxygen doesn’t fit neatly into the usual Google story line of hits (like its search engine) and misses (like the start last year of Buzz, its stab at social networking). Management is much squishier to analyze, after all, and the topic often feels a bit like golf. You can find thousands of tips and rules for how to become a better golfer, and just as many for how to become a better manager. Most of them seem to make perfect sense.

Problems start when you try to keep all those rules in your head at the same time — thus the golf cliché, “paralysis by analysis.” In management, as in golf, the greats make it all look effortless, which only adds to the sense of mystery and frustration for those who struggle to get better.

That caveat aside, Project Oxygen is noteworthy for a few reasons, according to academics and experts in this field.

H.R. 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.

“Google is really at the leading edge of that,” says Todd Safferstone, managing director of the Corporate Leadership Council of the Corporate Executive Board, who has a good perch to see what H.R. executives at more than 1,000 big companies are up to.

Project Oxygen is also unusual, Mr. Safferstone says, because it is based on Google’s own data, which means that it will feel more valid to those Google employees who like to scoff at conventional wisdom.

Many companies, he explained, adopt generic management models that tell people the roughly 20 things they should do as managers, without ranking those traits by importance. Those models often suffer “a lot of organ rejection” in companies, he added, because they are not presented with any evidence that they will make a difference, nor do they prioritize what matters.

“Most companies are better at exhorting you to be a great manager, rather than telling you how to be a great manager,” Mr. Safferstone says.

PROJECT OXYGEN started with some basic assumptions.

2 Responses to Google’s Quest to Build a Better Boss

  1. sduralde says:

    Google’s approach optimizes a sub-optimal model. A poor performer is less bad after a year of coaching. Our data show that talent occurs in predictable combinations, each combo in predictable frequency. Some combos DO NOT exist at all. The talents of great leaders (envision future, inspire followers) does not exist in the same person as a great manager (sees unique talents in others, applies and develops the talent, fosters purposeful collaboration). Google should have asked: What talents do our best managers posses? How do we find and develop more, faster?

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