No Fear of Failure at Google

Ann All

In October I wrote a post about the unwillingness of many organizations to risk failure. I cited an article by a silicon.com columnist who made the point that a proper project portfolio management approach makes room for failure, albeit limiting budgets and keeping deadlines short to minimize risk. I also shared excerpts from BusinessWeek interviews with members of Google's core search and ranking teams, all of whom exhibited a refreshing willingness to discuss failures in a non-critical way to determine how to apply the lessons learned.


This willingness to take chances appears to be a defining tenet of Google's corporate culture, based on a recent post by Don Dodge on his The Next Big Thing blog. Many organizations are so conditioned to dismiss failure as unacceptable, they set only modest goals for themselves. Startups, in contrast, will try multiple approaches until they find one that works and "won't stop until they succeed," Dodge says. He writes:


Google's culture seems to follow the Thomas Edison approach which paraphrased is "I haven't failed, I've just found lots of approaches that don't work, and I am closer to the solution."


Dodge offers several other nuggets on Google's processes for setting goals and measuring success.

  • Set quarterly goals rather than annual ones, and measure goals every quarter as well. Doing so allows for mid-course corrections and setting new and even higher goals for the next quarter, writes Dodge.
  • Set the bar so high it seems out of reach -- on purpose.
  • Make it clear that achieving 65 percent of the impossible is better than 100 percent of the ordinary.
  • Offer terrific incentives for success. At Google, financial rewards are "significant" but not the primary motivator, writes Dodge. "Working with the best people in the world and achieving greatness is the ultimate reward."


Dodge describes an "energy force field" that comes from surrounding yourself with top achievers. Doing so "inspires you to achieve more than you thought possible." Though I had read some time ago that Google was considering dropping its famed policy of allowing engineers to spend 20 percent of their time working on ideas of their own rather than company-sanctioned projects, Fortune magazine's 100 Best Companies to Work For list for 2010 includes a mini profile of Google that mentions the policy is still in place.


While some folks, including IT Business Edge contributor Rob Enderle, see Google's interviewing and hiring processes as screwy, there may be a method to its seeming madness. A candidate for a software engineer intern position at Google recently wrote on Glassdoor.com that Google interviewers "seem genuinely interested in finding people who are excited by the prospect of solving challenging problems."

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