Sharing joy and knowledge from an ordinary life

How Google Works: Part 1- Culture, Strategy, Talent

As I have become more and more involved in learning and development it has become increasingly obvious to me that roles in this area are so closely tied to organisational development, leading change, as well as establishing, and maintaining or refreshing an organisation’s culture.

I’ve always believed that there’s no better way to achieve a fantastic workplace culture than to empower, often through learning but definitely through collaborative projects, each and every single member of staff to actively contribute to the wider aims of an organisation. For as long as I work in learning and development, it will be my mission to figure out how this can be achieved.

If you know me well then you’ll know that I’m a fan and user of Google products in education. For those of you ill-informed, this is perceived as a blind following of glossy, shiny products because I don’t know any different. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ve been a part of a movement to change culture in an organisation and Google was our tool to help achieve this. It empowered staff, it helped them to be creative and it connected us together. I was a teacher who reduced stress and workload whilst improving communication and engagement with my students through the use of Google. I remain well-informed of what others are doing but for as long as Google is capable of achieving all of these things then I’ll be using it (along with whichever other technologies are most suitable for what I’m attempting to achieve: Piktochart, EdPuzzle, Periscope, Twitter, Smore, PearlTrees…).

This is not the sole reason that I look to this organisation’s culture for answers but the fact they create products that speak to the user’s needs and answer what they didn’t know they yet needed are reasons I began to dig a little deeper. A little while ago, I came across this presentation about Google’s ‘Smart Creatives’ and I was intrigued to say the least.

In addition, The Internship movie provided a window, albeit a mostly fictional one (or so I thought), into this work culture that seemed so unlike others I knew of.



And so the book was bought and finally devoured. My short commute meant I could only get through 4-5 pages before I disembarked and so a full morning of reading in the holidays later, here I am, setting out to impart some of the messages my head is now filled with.*


*Although it’d be interesting to discover more about the inner-workings of how a Google search works- that’s not what this work will give you.



Google’s culture is built on people known as ‘Smart Creatives’: these are the people any CEO worth their salt should want to fill their buildings with. I perceive these people are more of a ‘mindset’ and a disposition rather than something you are or you aren’t. They are certainly integral to the Google work culture but other companies should certainly be taking note.


The book describes one particular attribute of a ‘smart creative’ that I think is vital in any education context:

‘She is open creative. She freely collaborates, and judges ideas and analyses on their merits and not their provenance. If she were into needlepoint, she would sew a pillow that said, ‘If I give you a penny, then you’re a penny richer and I’m a penny poorer, but if I give you an idea, then you will have a new idea but I’ll have it too.’ Then she would figure out a way to make the pillow fly around the room and shoot lasers.’

There is a great deal of value in the sharing of ideas within education, as these recent design thinking projects for education are testament to:

This open creativity can be further encouraged by the environment created for working. Google’s ethos was not to give more space- especially the higher you progressed through the hierarchy.

‘When you reach out and tap someone on the shoulder, there is nothing to get in the way of communications and the flow of ideas.’

‘Most interactions between groups of people are either planned (a meeting in a conference room) or serendipitous (the hallway / water cooler / walking through the parking lot meeting). This is exactly backward; the steady state should be highly interactive…employees should always have the option to retire to a quiet place when they’ve had it with all the group stimulation.’

Work and Life


Some messages I’ve been reading recently about the elusive ‘work-life balance’ were reinforced here too. It should be less of a ‘balance’ and more of a harmonious intertwining of the two so that all aspects of ‘life’ can exist alongside one another- not in isolation: jostling, eternally dissatisfied, for position.

There are many times in the year when employees may have to work harder and longer hours during certain projects. It’s an inevitable part of work and instead of resenting it; we should embrace it by making room and space for it and more importantly, planning for it.

‘Manage this by giving people responsibility and freedom. Don’t order them to stay late and work or to go home early and spend time with their families. Instead, tell them to own the things for which they are responsible, and they will do what it takes to get them done. Give them the space and the freedom to make it happen.’

When employees are sufficiently challenged but also supported (by a collaborative working environment) then they will manage their work-life balance for themselves: knowing when to work hard but also when to take a break. Smaller teams that work really closely together can help with workplace wellbeing too as they are more able to notice when someone is burning out or needs to take a break. This responsibility to look out for one another is more difficult in a larger team with a lack of close working relationships.

A culture of ‘Yes’!

‘Companies come up with elaborate, often passive-aggressive ways to say no: processes to follow, approvals to get, meetings to attend. No is like a tiny death to smart creatives… Enough nos, and smart creatives stop asking and start heading to the exits.’

As the further education sector enters the dawn of larger institutions, they would do well to maintain or develop a culture of yes:

Growing companies spawn chaos, which most managers try to control by creating more processes… Michael Hogan: “My first word of advice is this: Say yes. In fact, say yes as often as you can. Saying yes begins things. Saying yes is how things grow. Saying yes leads to new experiences, and new experiences will lead you to knowledge and wisdom… An attitude of yes is how you will be able to go forward in these uncertain times.”


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The Yes Man film certainly serves as a warning about the dangers of bandying ‘yes’ around too freely without any thought but there’s certainly something to be said for creating a positive work culture by being open to a ‘yes’ where the risks aren’t too great and where a possible solution is being offered.

The pause button


Having sat in many meetings over the years where actions or possible changes are discussed but no resolution reached, it seems a sensible way forward to install a pause button. This way, the final decision is not just made by the first desperate person to raise their voice the loudest in favour of just reaching some kind of decision, no matter what it is.

I suppose in Google’s case, it’s more of a moral compass. A way of forcing a decision that is not only made but is one that fits with the organisation’s core values – and no, not the ones thought up by the CEO but the ones the employees live by, day in and day out.

‘The famous Google mantra of “Don’t be evil” is not entirely what it seems. Yes, it genuinely expresses a company value and aspiration that is deeply felt by employees. But “Don’t be evil” is mainly another way to empower employees.’

The mantra can be used by anyone, at any time they feel a moral compass check is required. This kind of a company value is loved by the employees, not merely regurgitated with little to no feeling.

‘It becomes the basis for everything you and the company do; it is the safeguard against something going off the rails, because it is the rails.’

Technical insight

Google is a company filled with products that have been developed using technical insight. Use the technical expertise within the organisation to remain ahead of the market. An organisation that relies solely on market research and the views of its customers will fail.

‘Giving the customer what he wants is less important than giving him what he doesn’t yet know he wants.’

I found this notion a particularly interesting one for further education colleges – stay ahead of the trends and the feedback of students: providing courses, technology, pedagogies and projects they don’t yet know they want. This would clearly involve dedicated horizon scanning by employees but also a bravery to try things that are not yet the norm. Google’s advice is yo focus on spotting patterns in what’s working well already within the company / organisation and rely on your ‘smart creatives’ to collaborate, share ideas and come up with the revolutions that are not yet conceivable to the customer.



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Learning is an iterative process and any creative organisation will not only know this but set its culture around the journey of learning. A sterile, corporate process designed to deliver immediate success does not have a journey in its sights and planning strategy, designing new solutions and developing a business can often feel formulaic – a going through of motions. For learning to take place, the creative journey must instead be trusted:

  • Gather a range of people in the meeting who you believe can make a positive and active contribution to the project. This won’t necessarily be the managers or people who’ve been with the organisation the longest.
  • Set an end point for the project- not a deadline (although a rough time-frame to work towards will help) but what do you want to achieve by the end?
  • Google would assert that ‘your plan is wrong.’ A strategy needs to be iterative in approach so that it can respond to what is learnt along the way. ‘It needs to be very, very fast and always based on learning.’

‘The right strategy has a beauty to it, a series of many people and ideas working in concert to succeed.’

‘What’s the single most important thing you do at work?’

No, it’s not go to meetings. That’s the most boring, not the most important. The right answer to that question is ‘hiring.’



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If we hire the right people then the organisation ticks in the way we want it to- these people uphold the culture and help the organisation to achieve greater success. Without the right people, we’ll never achieve it and we’ll be fighting a losing battle.

A hierarchical hiring process prevents the right decision from being made.

‘The rational “let’s-hire-this-guy-because-he’s-so-smart” decision usually gets usurped by the more emotional “but-then-he-might-be-better-than-me-and-make-me-look-bad-and-then-I-won’t-get-promoted-and-my-kids-will-think-I’m-a-loser-and-my-wife-will-run-off-with-that-guy-from-Poet’s-Coffee-and-take-my-dog-and-truck” decision. In other words, human nature gets in the way.’

‘This is why we believe that hiring should be peer-based, not hierarchical, with decisions made by committees, and it should be focused on bringing the best possible people into the company, even if their experience might not match one of the open roles.’ We should seek to find openings for people who we think could positively contribute to the organisation. ‘In a peer-based hiring process, the emphasis is on people, not organisation. The smart creatives matter more than the role; the company matters more than the manager.’

Hire learning animals

‘Although the advice should be to always hire people smarter than yourself, this isn’t the sole indicator of how well they will handle change. ‘We know plenty of people who, when faced with the roller coaster of change, will choose the familiar spinning-teacups ride instead. They would rather avoid all those gut-wrenching lurches; in other words, reality. Henry Ford said that “anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young…” Our ideal candidates are the ones who prefer roller coasters, the ones who keep learning. These “learning animals” have the smarts to handle massive change and the character to love it.’

But how how can you be sure whether you’re interviewing a ‘learning animal’? Asking candidates to reflect on a past mistake is a good place to start.

“What big trend did you miss about the Internet in 1996? What did you get right, and what did you get wrong?” It’s a deceptively tricky question. It makes candidates define what they expected, link it to what they observed and explore the revelations, and forces them to admit a mistake- and not in the lame, my-biggest-weakness-is-that-I’m-a-perfectionist sort of way. It’s impossible to fake the answer.’

And once they’re employed?


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‘Keep learning them!’ Create opportunities for every employee to be constantly learning new things- even skills and experiences that aren’t directly beneficial to the company- and then expect them to use them. This won’t be challenging for true learning animals, who will gladly avail themselves of training and other opportunities. But keep an eye of the people who don’t; perhaps they aren’t quite the learning animals you though they were.’

It’s generally assumed that education is a profession where its staff will continually seek to be learning. If that were the truly the case then we wouldn’t have the five year plateau, would we? We wouldn’t have managers saying, ‘well their practice used to be great. I don’t know what happened…’ I’ll tell you what happened. Inertia. Fatigue. Not enough challenge or perhaps too much. Not enough fear or perhaps too much. An environment where failure is not acceptable. Too much of the word ‘no’ and not enough of the word ‘yes’. A pressure to perform rather than permission to learn. We have to put in effort to ensure that we establish a learning culture; it’s not just about employing the right people in the first place as this is only half the battle. WE have to create the conditions whereby learning can continue to happen – and failure s more than permitted but embraced as part of this journey. Mary Myatt’s recent TED talk on High Challenge, Low Threat, references a need to create a space that is robust but also kind.


Not because it’s the law or even because it’s the morally sound thing to do. Hire people from a diverse range of cultures, backgrounds and experiences because each of them will bring a different perspective to the problems you’re seeking solutions for.

‘These differences of perspective generate insights that can’t be taught. When you bring them together in a work environment, they integrate to create a broader perspective that is priceless.’

Our default position would be to hire people who are like us and will make friends easily within the team. This isn’t necessarily the best approach to be taking.

‘You must work with people you don’t like, because a workforce comprised of people who are all, “best office buddies” can be homogenous, and homogeneity in an organisation breeds failure. A multiplicity of viewpoints-aka diversity- is your best defence against myopia.’

‘Great talent often doesn’t look and act like you. When you go into that interview, check your biases at the door and focus on whether or not the person has the passion, intellect, and character to succeed and excel.’

Search for people who are brilliant. They don’t have to be experts in the specific field, software or approach you need them for:

‘Supercomputer pioneer Seymour Cray used to deliberately hire for inexperience because it brought him people who “do not usually know what’s supposed to be impossible.” They’ll be the ones willing to take risks and try new things.’

The image and blog below suggests that he’s not the only one who believed that hiring for inexperience and searching for talent instead was the way to do things:


Click here to read the blog about ‘Superbosses’

The job of finding people belongs to every single one of the company’s employees. We each know at least one person who’s great and could prove an asset to the company- we should tap into these connections in order to recruit the best employees.

Interviewing is all about the questions

It’s not about asking them to regurgitate their CV- this is a waste of the time you have with the candidate and you won’t get to know them in the way you’ll need to in order to determine whether they’re the kind of smart creative you’re looking for. Asking them what their weaknesses are will only lead to them regurgitating some nonsense about striving for perfection. Instead, you want to elicit reflection about when things haven’t exactly gone to plan:

‘What was the low point in the project?’

‘Why was it successful?/ unsuccessful?’

In my interview at The Sheffield College, I was asked, ‘What motivates you and what frustrates you?’ It was an unexpected question. It was a challenge. It made me think and for that reason, I still remember it now. You can’t be careful about what you say; you just have to be honest.


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You’re looking for responses that reveal true insight about their character and how they respond to failure as well as success- how have they learned from it and taken it forward? What would they do differently if presented with a similar situation in the future? The process they go through when answering these questions will be as revealing as the answer itself. Honesty is what you’re seeking at this juncture so ask more questions if their response isn’t quite revealing enough- dig deeper with hows and whys. For any teacher, this is certainly not anything new but there’s often a temptation to stick with the script, especially in a further education college, where there’s an HR department, a list of questions and a form to complete.

‘Questions should be large and complex, with a range of answers (to draw out the person’s thought process) that the interviewer can push back on (to see how the candidate stakes out and defends a position).’ Get the candidate to show off their thinking, not just their CV. ‘What surprised you about…?’ might be an original enough question to tease out unrehearsed responses. ‘If I were to look at the web history section of your browser, what would I learn about you that isn’t on your resume?’

This can lead to a far better understanding of the candidate than some of the safer questions. Specific answers are something else you should seek as these indicate real insight into the challenges they might face.

‘Scenario questions are often helpful, but more so when interviewing more senior people, because they can reveal how a person will use or trust their own staff. For example, “When you are in a crisis, or need to make an important decision, how do you do it?” will often reveal if a candidate is of the “if you want something done, do it yourself” ilk, or if they will rely on the people around them. The former is more likely to get frustrated with the people around them and thus handing on to control, the latter more likely to hire great people and have faith in them.’

‘While you want to ask thoughtful questions, you should also identify the candidates who ask thoughtful questions. People who ask good questions are curious, smarter, more flexible and interesting, and understand that they don’t have all the answers- exactly the type of smart-creative characteristics you want.’

Most people, when requested to be part of an interview panel, turn it down. They haven’t got time and they don’t see the benefits. Getting the right people into the organisation is the single most important thing they could be doing. It’s the most important skill for them to develop – whether in their current role or even with future organisations – yet they still don’t see the benefit of getting the practice.

‘At Google we implemented a trusted-interviewer program, an elite team of people who were actually good at interviewing and liked to do it, and they got to do the bulk of the work (and were rewarded with higher scores during performance review). Product managers who wanted to be in the program had to go through interview training and shadow a minimum of four interviewers as they met with candidates. Once in the program they were scored on a variety of performance metrics, including how many interviews they conducted, reliability (it’s amazing how many people think it’s OK to cancel interviews at the last minute, or not even show up- this is the moment I realise Google is much like any other company and they still have annoying people working for them but I can attest to this fact having been an interviewer twice now because someone didn’t turn up), and quality and promptness of their feedback (quality of feedback declines precipitously after fourth-eight hours; our best interviewers schedule time to enter their feedback right after the interview). We published these stats and let people not in the program “challenge” the incumbents and replace them if their performance was better. In other words, not interviewing was seen as a punishment. With this program, interviewing became a privilege, not a chore, and quality increased across the board.’

Interviewers are encouraged to lay their cards on the table when it comes to a candidate and get off the fence. They can be rated between a 1 and a 4 and a 3 is generally a cop out as it says they like them, but not enough to give them a 4 so the decision is left to someone else. A 4 means ‘This person is perfect for this role. If you don’t hire them, expect to hear from me.’ The language is deliberately emotional because smart creatives care about who joins their team and the decision is that important. It’s not ever really a case of meh, I don’t really mind either way… There are four categories used for all candidates:

1- Leadership

2- Role-Related Knowledge

3- General cognitive ability

4- Googleyness

Hiring is done by committee so that the decision is always based on data and not on relationships.

A statement made that is particularly relevant to education and especially the further education sector is,

‘Urgency of the role isn’t sufficiently important to compromise quality in hiring.’

You can still keep the process from being slow whilst also making it robust enough to succeed in securing the best employees: ‘In the inevitable showdown between speed and quality, quality must prevail.’

The factors affecting recruitment beyond money are shared and it’s asserted that the compensation curve should start low.

‘You can attract the best smart creatives with factors beyond money: the great things they can do, the people they’ll work with, the responsibility and opportunities they’ll be given, the inspiring company culture and values, and yes, maybe even free food and happy dogs sitting desk-side… But when those smart creatives become employees and start performing, pay them appropriately. The bigger the impact, the bigger the comp.’

Working for a company that has a pay rewards system based on the level of impact you have on the organisation makes me agree with the fairness of a process whereby it’s not solely your status within an organisation that counts but the level of impact you have. So ‘yes, the lower-level employee who helps create a breakthrough product or feature should be very handsomely rewarded. Pay outrageously good people outrageously well, regardless of their title or tenure. What counts is their impact.’



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‘News flash: When you hire great people, some of them may come to realise that there is a world beyond yours. This isn’t a bad thing, in fact it’s an inevitable by-product of a healthy, innovative team. Still, fight like hell to keep them. The best way to retain smart creatives is to not let them get too comfortable, to always come up with ways to make their jobs interesting.’

Involve your most valued employees in more exciting projects; working with the CEO for instance or running leadership meetings. It may reach the point where creating roles specifically for your smart creatives is necessary.

‘Often it takes more than interesting side projects to keep people engaged and prevent them from leaving. You need to prioritise the interests of the highly valued individual over the constraints of the organisation.’

Rotation within a company is also recommended. But be warned, holding onto the best bits within your own team (the m&ms) and transferring the others (the raisins) is not good for the company. Although if you’ve recruited correctly and developed staff afterwards, then the raisins shouldn’t even exist.

They then have advice for planning your future. These aren’t words I love to hear but

‘Statistics is the new plastics.’ ‘Asking the questions and interpreting the answers is as important a skill as coming up with the answers themselves. No matter your business, learn how the right data, crunched the right way, will help you make better decisions. Learn which questions to ask the people who are good with numbers and how to make best use of their replies.’

And there’s hope yet- ‘Even if you aren’t a numbers person, you can learn how to use numbers to get smarter.’ Now for working out how…

Know your elevator pitch

elevator-1256718_960_720This was a piece of advice that really struck a chord with me. My job generally consists of a whole variety of tasks and things to do. Often, particularly recently, when I’m asked what I’m up to- I struggle to articulate it. Google’s advice, for when the CEO asks what you’re up to, is as follows: ‘Your pitch should explain what you are working on, the technical insight that’s driving it, how you are measuring your success (particularly customer benefit), and perhaps how it fits into the big picture. Know this and practice it so you can say it with conviction.’



The Internet makes reading even easier now; Google suggests creating ‘circles of other like-minded smart people and swapping books and articles’. ‘People always say they don’t have the time to read, but what they are really saying is that they aren’t making it a priority to learn as much as they can about their business. You know who reads a lot about their business? CEOs. So think like a CEO and read.’

Since beginning work in L&D, reading has become perhaps even more important than it was when I was teaching. I have a whole host of questions that I need to find answers for – even when I’ve found one answer, I continue reading so that I can gain a full as picture as I can about the possibilities available to me. What’s the best way for me to work? How does change happen? How and why do people choose to opt into their learning?

This book about ‘How Google Works’ is selling a company and the way they do things. I suppose, in reality, all of their employees may not feel that this culture exists in the way it’s described in the book but the ethos described certainly appeals to me and may be worthwhile attempting to replicate within an education setting.

In the second part of this blog, discover what Google have to say about Decision, Communications and Innovation.

Schmidt E and Rosenberg, J (2015) How Google Works, John Murray: LONDON

My writing commitment: I’m learning to honour my thoughts. I’m learning that my words can be shared before I’ve connected all the dots or learned everything there is to know. My writing can be a snapshot of a single moment in continually-evolving time.

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