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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Lessons Learned from Google

Story first appeared in USA Today.

When people talk about Google and its organizational culture, they are equally fascinated and hopeless, believing that the magic behind Google lies in the deep revenue streams that make it possible to feed its employees three meals a day. Small businesses, especially, tend to dismiss Google as a wholly unattainable model for running a business.

However, there were core lessons learned at Google that transformed the way people look at problem solving and strategic thinking. There were statements that were heard early and often that guided decision-making at every level of the organization. These mantras are at the core of innovation for Google but translate readily to any business to create agility, employee engagement and ultimately, stronger business results. Google's success owes far more to these mantras than the food in the cafes, and even better, they cost no money to implement.

1. Launch and iterate. Even the smartest of the hyper-educated Google leaders cannot predict which products and features will attract a sizable user base. Instead, they urge teams to launch quickly and iterate — in other words, stick with, and perfect, what's working — based on what they learn from their users. Rather than spending time perfecting a product that might not work, get it out there, and let the feedback guide future development.

For a small business, this means trying out a lot of services, products, marketing, sales and other tactics in really small ways, gauging the success and then building on the ideas that work in reality. Resist the urge to perfect — if your customers understand that you truly want their feedback to shape products and services, they will enthusiastically share their opinions.

2. Fail fast. If you try a lot of stuff by launching early and iterating, you'll fail at most attempts. This is the secret to innovation. Failure is not a bad thing, but slow failure in the market is. Launch, iterate and declare the failures as quickly as you can. Most importantly, learn from those failures to help guide future efforts.

Do a weekly retrospective for your operations, lasting no more than 30 minutes. Ask your teams to answer three simple questions: What worked well? What did we learn? What can we do differently? Then, pick the one change that will make the most difference and put it in to play.

3. Focus on the user. Your customers or users should be your singular focus, always. A question asked incessantly to maintain this focus is: "What problem are we trying to solve for our customers?" Every product or service must be linked to a problem or challenge that will make their lives easier.

4. Ask forgiveness, not permission. This mantra was important to mobilize every Google employee in the company to do the things they felt were right without worrying about what approvals they needed to do it. The idea is to remove barriers and to empower employees to act quickly.

Reward employees for taking initiative, and treat their missteps as any other failure — something to learn from, but not to dwell on. What is most important is they become stewards of your company to make the best decisions without seeking 100 approvals to do so.

5. If you see a void, fill it. This is a favorite lesson from Google. It gives explicit permission to employees and the expectation that, if something is broken, everyone is empowered and responsible to fix it. If there is a spill in the kitchen, clean it up. If the copy machine is broken, file a ticket. And if you see a void in the market for an application you believe users will love, then build it.

This creates an environment in which every employee is 100% responsible for making your company better every day in little (or big) ways.
Put together, these five mantras create a responsible organization fiercely devoted to making the lives of customers better, one tiny step at a time. Free bagels are optional.

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