Growing up Google: 6 pivotal moments that changed Google for the worse

Leaving Google was a very tough thing to do: the technological innovation remains immense, the people are smart and the perks aren’t bad. “Goldman Gate” and James Whittaker’s Microsoft Blog rant have, however, raised the level of attention that a company’s culture has on how it operates. Whittaker mentions Google pre and post Google+; the truth of the matter is that Google changed culturally long before the launch of its social network. Let’s look at some pivotal moments that changed the culture of Google for the worse.

The arrival of Patrick Pichette
Pichette replaced long-standing CFO George Reyes in August 2008 and his first major move was to cut the excessive spending going on internally. Pichette’s “austerity campaign” saw the closure of some of Google’s most historic free-food cafeterias as well as other perks which, while probably being the right move in this financial climate, didn’t bode well with employees who felt like they were worth less.

More wood behind less arrows
Larry Page mentioned mid 2011 that Google was concentrating on the important products and cutting out activities relating to peripheral “labs” products — but in reality the cull started long before that. In 2008 Google UK axed its whole internal Google Analytics consultancy team because the team couldn’t accurately track how much revenue they were bringing into Google. The retrenchment of the team was viewed as a particularly harsh move considering Google’s financial position; retrenching staff was unnecessary. The actual closure of “labs” signalled that Google was no longer the errant-dreamer company we thought it had been and definitely under-scored its new approach: less creation of cool stuff in favour of consolidation.

.Org is at sea
.Org is Google’s philanthropic arm and is mandated to develop technologies to help address global challenges and support innovative partners through grants, investments and in-kind resources. While having developed cool tools like Flu Trends and People Finder, .Org hasn’t produced the massive philanthropic breakthrough one would expect from an organisation which is powered by a technological and financial powerhouse like Google. This has a knock-on effect, not only externally but internally too, as employees feel like they’re working on the shareholder’s bottom line and not on saving the planet.

Too much McKinsey-style management
McKinsey produces an immensely structured and data-based management style that relies a lot on reporting and planning to get things done — the antithesis of what a flat-structured startup is. Yet, a lot of the top brass in Google come from the global management company including former head of Operations, Shona Brown, and former America Sales Chief turned Motorola CEO, Dennis Woodside. It’s this kind of stiff-upper-lip approach that doesn’t sit well with those “old schoolers” who built an organisation that thrived on spontaneity and agility.

Google stopped leading innovation and started chasing it
Ex-CEO Eric Schmidt’s favourite comment when asked about the competition was: “We’re not concerned about them [the competition], by concentrating on us it will make us better than them.” That sentiment died when Google started concentrating on how to beat Facebook, it took its eyes off the unbeaten track and diverted course towards competing in an area it had very little success in. The best employees want to work at the best companies and Google has recently had to up its pay in order to stop the brain drain.

Google’s changed its “10 things we know to be true” philosophy
Changing your company philosophy is probably the biggest sign of all that your company is changing. Even with its revised philosophy in place, Google still can’t stick to it as it proceeds to try to do lots of things well, instead of doing one thing really well — that kind of philosophical incongruence can take its toll on employee morale.

As a teenage company, Google faces a very turbulent time. It has to grow up and evolve but it also has to balance that against what initially made it great: the flat structure, the immediacy of decision-making, the autonomy of its staff and the brave, yet sometimes naive, plan to change the world forever.

*Editor’s note: Graeme Lipschitz left Google’s UK office in 2008 and joined its South African office as lead account strategist and head of the EMEA “Culture Club”. Its mandate was to spread Google’s unique culture to its satellite offices. In 2009 he won the prestigious “Be Google” award for being the “most fun” person in the region.



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