Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Intentional management 2: a brief and selective discussion of Google as a case study

Posted in strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on March 9, 2014

This is my second installment in a series in which I discuss how management activity and responsibilities can be parsed and distributed through a business organization, so as to better meet operational and strategic goals and as a planned intentional process. I began this series with Part 1: mapping management systems by default and through simple repetition of a basic oversight model, by outlining a basic, standard, traditional management approach in which individual supervisors hold overall management and supervisory responsibility for essentially all day to day and ongoing processes through which their direct reports are managed: both technical and task and project oriented, and personnel and business process oriented. I continue this discussion here with a very specific alternative business model approach, as provided by the American-based multinational corporation: Google.

Google, as a core element of its overall business model, separates technical development and implementation management from HR-connecting and business organizational management, and with essentially all employees reporting in two directions and to two very separate types of manager. The reason that Google was set up from its start with this as a scalable organizational goal is very simple, at least as a matter of overall principle. They do this to prevent micromanagement on the technology development and implementation side of their business: the side that represents their outwardly, marketplace facing identity, and to prevent stultification of creativity and inventiveness that having business managers per se managing innovation can bring.

• As a general rule, if the historical default management model that I outlined in Part 1 is the generally pursued default management pattern, then significant deviations from it in planning and practice are generally developed and implemented in response to very specific strategic concerns, and as corrective measures for addressing them.

On the technical and task and project performance side of this at Google, employees are organized into small hands-on teams managed for their day to day work and for the projects they are working on by a technical lead, with these teams having on the order of half a dozen members. Many of these teams are developed with a goal of meeting task completion requirements for ongoing Google initiatives, but employees are also given time and opportunity to work on projects of their own design and selection and many of Google’s most successful marketable products have grown out of these employee-sourced innovation initiatives and the work of employee-organized technical teams. And I stress here that for employee-originated projects and also for much of what is done at Google in general, teams can be self-assembled by the employees who would work on them and they tend to select their own technical leads – their own technical managers from among their ranks.

Business managers that handle personnel-related and other internal business matters and processes generally have on the order of 60 direct reports, or the equivalent of 10 of these hands-on technical teams. This number is very explicitly held high enough to limit if not prevent micromanagement on their part.

And I add that when technical team participation is open and when that can and does mean assembling small teams with diverse backgrounds and hands-on specializations and from across traditional table of organization lines as needed, that can and does mean that the half dozen members of any given technical team are likely to report to different business managers. Single business managers are unlikely to have everyone on a technical team reporting to them.

This at least implies an ongoing need to have planned out, standardized mechanisms in place for reconciling priority differences and of a variety of types, including between technical-lead managers, and at times between business managers as well. Well-designed operational processes for limiting and resolving potential conflicts as to who is working on what and as what portion of their overall assigned workload, would limit the need for more senior management resolution and facilitate resolution at the level of these potential conflict points. And a goal of this system of processes would be to limit perceived micromanagement from above, even if that cannot be entirely eliminated as a possibility whenever more senior management has to step in to adjudicate.

So this system is designed to facilitate open innovation that is as free from internal business process interference as possible, while significantly limiting if not entirely eliminating at least direct and overt micromanagement and the channelization it brings. And this approach like any other intentional management approach creates at least some ripple-effect new challenges too, that have to be operationally limited and managed, and certainly for any predictable possible down-sides.

• When you make a significant, fundamental change in one core business process or practice followed, you have to look for and adjust for ripple-effect complications and make adjustments and even fundamental changes in other operational areas too.

One area of potential impact that comes immediately to mind in this case study example is in how employee performance reviews are to be handled (for background reference resources on that, see for example, Performance Reviews – setting and following best practices standards.)

If a hands-on employee is actively participating on more than one technical team in a work performance reporting period, they are likely to have to be performance reviewed for that by more than one technical lead, so it is important that different technical leads evaluate and score team member performance according to a consistent standard. And depending on proportion of time expended on a technical team and the importance and impact of its contribution to the company as a whole, at the very least for results valuation criteria, it is going to be necessary that business managers combine these findings consistently and fairly too. This calls for specific communications processes and specific evaluation oversight and standardization processes from Human Resources, as supported by Information Technology, among others.

The system that I write of here can be considered a highly specialized example of a more general matrix management approach. I am going to consider and discuss matrix management systems in more general terms in my next series installment. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Business Strategy and Operations – 3 and also at Page 1 and Page 2 of that directory.

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