Sunday, September 26, 2010

Workplace Culture: Google and the Military

It is no secret that Google enjoys a unique corporate culture. Last week, as part of the Information Dominance Corps Senior Leadership Seminar, I had the privilege of witnessing it first hand. The uniqueness is in the extremity with which the underlying principles were adopted and not in the cultural philosophy itself. In fact, I saw little reason why the most important attributes would not work in a military culture. Sure, our dress code is a bit different and there is no way we could justify using taxpayer money to provide our service members with the facilities and food choices they enjoy. Aside from that, there is much we should emulate:

1) Expression of Individual Creativity - One cannot miss the pride in which people take in personalizing their workspace nor the level of detail Google takes in creating unique collaboration areas. Clearly, the work environment both feeds and reflects a culture of creativity, transparency and personal connection. The underlying military culture dissuades individuality and therefore creativity. In many cases, there is good reason for that, but the Information Dominance Corps in many respects is the Navy's Google so finding that balance between traditional military culture and that across Silicon Valley is paramount. There is no reason why we do not encourage a similar level of individual creativity. The most obvious program worthy of our adoption is the "20% Time". Each Googler is required to spend 20% of their professional time pursuing their passion vice working within their position description. Many people have since turned their "20% Time" projects into their primary job, new business lines for Google and enhanced the lives of many of us. None of us should be constrained by our position description and I'll tread lightly, but dare I say that commands need not strictly adhere to their designated "Mission, Functions and Tasks"?

2) Accessibility to Seniors - Every Friday at "TGIF", a senior executive hosts an open informal forum to share information with any and all interested parties. He/She fully discloses information of interest to the group and then answers uncensored questions from the audience. Geography need not impede participation as it is broadcast across the global Google infrastructure. I know I can (and will) make myself more accessible on the local level and there is little reason why TGIFs are not happening across any team. Accessibility builds trust and trust is the foundation of any relationship, personal or professional.

3) 360 degree input on performance appraisals - The vantage points of peers and subordinates are valued just as much as supervisors when it comes to assessing the performance of any given individual. Clearly, this alters behavior over the reporting period and ensures employees are properly focused across the team vice overly concerned with pleasing their seniors. Many of us invite informal 360 degree feedback in hopes of helping us to continually improve, but by making it part of the appraisal process we can help to ensure that it is those who enjoy trust and confidence across a 360 degree array that are pushed to the forefront of our team. Too many people are good at managing the perceptions of their seniors while they let down their peers and juniors in the process. Google ensures that doesn't happen and we can all do our part to do the same.

4) Meaningful input to hiring and assignment decisions - Current Googlers are required to interview potential hires and provide meaningful assessments to the point that they have veto power over an applicant. In discussing with current Googlers, they take great pride in their involvement and take personal ownership of anyone they endorse who ultimately makes it through the hiring gauntlet. Once hired, individuals seek out people with whom they would like to work from both a personality and technical expertise perspective. This creates a sponsorship culture whereby people take a vested interest in the success of the people they helped to get on the team, for their credibility is somewhat tied to the contributions of the new hire. Though our hiring model makes distributed involvement more challenging, it is not impossible. By having Detailers include a Chief/Officer who can accurately speak to the performance and potential of a Sailor prior to negotiating orders would create a similar culture and ensure it is more than flowery words on paper (i.e. performance appraisal) that influences often critical assignment decisions.

5) Personal Empowerment and Accountability - Truth be told, there are many potential distractions at Google that could inhibit productivity. In fact, many of my military colleagues acknowledged they might find focusing on work a bit difficult if they worked at Google. I am sure some Googlers find assimilation difficult at the beginning, but those who find it overly challenging will surely be asked to leave the team. Though everyone is empowered, value creation is critical and because the performance appraisal process is tied directly to compensation, only contributors are retained. If our productivity level is negatively impacted by continual visits to the many cafeterias, working out at the state-of-the-art gym or socializing with the large number of very interesting people, the chances of us losing access to these "distractions" and our employment altogether is high. So whether it is the carrot or the stick that motivates us, they are both real at Google.

Because I only spent a few hours there (which included a chance lunch with a high school friend), my assessment is clearly overly simplified. Regardless, there is no reason why these characteristics are not a part of military life to varying levels. I cannot control what a happens outside my small sphere of influence, but I can influence the weather within the microclimate of NIOC Pensacola. Rest assured, we will experiment with, learn from and share our trials as we integrate certain aspects of the Google Culture within our local laboratory.


  1. All good stuff. This is the kind of thing you should share with the Flags and get their reaction (or non-reaction) to your thoughts. What would you expect to get? No surprises, I bet.

  2. I particularly like the 360 degree review for evaluations. I found mine during Command Leadership School to be helpful. I think the process is valuable, it prevents a accomplishment at all cost mentality which I don't think is sustainable. It rewards leaders who balance mission accomplishment and subordinate development (or succeed in both). It may be hard to get your full team onboard or embrace it right away, so a good compromise may be to try it out during mid-term counselings. So similar to doing it at CLS, there is no immediate negative impacts, and it is just another tool to provide feedback to mentor our future leaders.

    Great blog. I have a relative who works at Google and I've been meaning to visit.

  3. Christopher - Because I am one for experimentation, we are doing the following...

    - I will receive mid-term counseling from XO, SEL, Senior Civilians, DH and President of FCPOA

    - Chiefs will solicit input from E-5 and below on E-6 performance before going into ranking boards

    Thanks for the feedback! I'll let you know what we learn this time around and how we build upon it in the future.

  4. Sir-
    Just wanted to check in to see if you had any lessons learned, best practices, or new insights from utilizing the 360 degree approach during the E-6 cycle. In particular did any of the feedback from juniors surprise any of the seniors.


  5. Chris - Thanks for holding me accountable and yes we did both learn and validate a few things.

    E-6 Cycle...We did it rather informally. Each Chief who participated in the ranking board got input from the subordinates of each PO1 prior to the board. That input helped to inform that particular Chief's recommendation and ultimately the discussion amongst the Chiefs. I do not know if/how the results would have been different if we had not made indirect subordinate input a part of the process, but the results were spot on. I say that because after personally debriefing each Sailor (time well spent and done by surprisingly few reporting seniors or so I am told) I was amazed at how self-aware each PO1 was. Almost every Sailor agreed with how they fell out and those who were surprised by the result were pleasantly surprised. I believe that to be a testament to effective mid-term counseling and a team of PO1s who know the relative strengths of their peers.

    My Mid-term counseling...I received constructive input from all angles and was pleased that each participant was willing to tell me what they believed I needed to hear and not necessarily what I wanted to hear. In some cases I was able to reshape their perceptions by providing them with additional insights into why I approached things in a specific way. In other instances, I have modified my approach to a few things based on their feedback. End result is a better understanding of each other, some behavior modification and a better CO.