Viewpoint: Can culture be benchmarked?

Can we learn about innovation from other businesses?

I was once talking to the founder of a startup who wanted to build the culture of Google in his firm. He wanted to benchmark the ‘best practices’ of Google’s culture of innovation and that is how he implemented this policy in his 50-person startup. Every employee in that tiny startup had to work on a personal project. Two months later a few employees came to the founder and asked for permission to work from home so that they could work together undisturbed on a secret project they had come up with.

Very soon, attendance in the office thinned on Fridays. One day the founder revoked the option to work-from-home on Fridays. Employees complained and sulked. The founder told the employees in a town hall that he had trusted the employees, but the employees had misused his trust.

Was the founder of the startup being naïve when he gave the employees a day off to innovate?

The back story of Google’s 20% Rule

‘20 percent time’ was created by Google Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin in 2004. It's designed to give employees one full day per week (20 percent of their time) to work on a Google-related passion project of their own choosing or creation. Gmail, AdSense and Google Talk were born from this 20%-time rule. In 2013 the company began cutting back on this policy and replaced it with a more focused approach to innovation. People had to seek their manager’s approval to be able to work on their passion project. The company would work on projects that fit into Google’s strategy and plans. (Read more)

Work Rules

In 2015, the then Head of HR for Google, Laszlo Bock wrote a book called Work Rules where he laid bare the way Google works. I was struck by the section on hiring. Every company claims that they wish to hire the top talent and then have a process that is no different from any other. Have a scientific rigor around hiring people. Most people think that they are terrific at interviewing – they aren’t. People use their gut and all kinds of unproven approaches to hiring. No wonder so many people underperform or are miserable at work.

This book tells you what the right way is. Don’t trust your gut is the first lesson Laszlo offers. He deconstructed the mystique behind Google’s hiring process. They continuously carry out their own research and gather data about every HR process. They test it against the academic research and then run their own stress-tests. The People Analytics team at Google is not your usual HR team.

One third people come from traditional HR backgrounds and have high degrees of emotional intelligence. One third is recruited from consulting, and specifically from strategy consultancies, not HR consultancies. The final third of hires are deeply analytic and hold at least a Masters in analytical fields ranging from organizational psychology to physics. That mix may explain why HR policies are not based on gut feel and tradition but driven by research that is continuously refined after implementation.

Our recommendation

Here is what we recommend

  1. Stop benchmarking and build your own cultural norms. The culture that actually prevails in an organization depends on the behaviors that the leaders demonstrate every day.
  2. Look at the people you promote or let go (or continue to carry when they do not perform) – that is what the average employee believes is your culture. It is not what the posters on the wall claim.
  3. Studying the people who stay (and get promoted) and the people who quit are powerful inputs to design your hiring system. Your hiring system is the gatekeeper of your talent. Study it and continuously refine it.



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