Do Managers Really Matter?

Google did not think management had much value for an engineering driven organization of self starters and high achievers. They decided to find out if Managers do really matter. Here's what they discovered.

In it's first 18 years of existence, Google, has gone from a garage in a Menlo Park home to one of the most valuable companies in the world with over $ 75 billion in revenue and 50,000 employees.  They have changed the way we live and work with search, Android, YouTube, email and online collaboration. Now they are among the leaders in changing many aspects of our lives through the application of artificial intelligence.  Even their most fierce critic would have to objectively see them as a great success story.

In a previous blog post, I wrote about how important process, even more so than product, is to the long term success of an organization.  Another key ingredient for long term organizational success is great management. Sometimes management seems to be linked to personality and therefore something that is more of a fixed attribute rather than a process that can be analyzed and improved. That's an unfortunate bias leading to poor management becoming the accepted norm.  Instead, what if we viewed management as a process where we analyze results and feedback, benchmark what has seemed to have worked and make changes in our methods and practices to continuously improve - in other words, using a data driven approach to understand and improve our own management processes.  Google decided to take this approach.

Google is an engineering driven organization built by and for engineers. The feeling at Google and many similar organizations was that "managers are at best a necessary evil, and at worst, destructive." They recruited the best technical talent that were high achievers with high ambition and compensated them with salary and benefits that were among the best in any industry. Realizing the importance of hiring and keeping this growing base of talent they wanted a strong HR group that went beyond administering benefits and performance reviews.  They added a people analytics group to their HR group called people operations with a mission to create a culture and process where all people decisions should be informed by data and analytics.

Managers Don't Matter?

One of the first problems they wanted to analyze was to answer the question "Do Managers Really Matter" using a data driven process that eliminated bias and personal judgment but not necessarily human input.  They started a project, named Project Oxygen to see if good managers made a difference. However, they decided to look at it first from the original hypothesis the engineering driven organization believed to be true - Managers don't matter.

First they took a look at two existing measures from the annual employee surveys on manager performance ratings and manager feedback. From this data they found that managers do matter. Teams with higher scoring managers were both happier and more productive.  But the quantitative scores didn't reveal what made the great managers great.  So they dug deeper into the surveys including comments and found there were 8 traits or behaviors that correlated with the higher scoring managers. They also had double blind interviews with a group of best and worst managers to find specific examples of what the two were doing differently. The graphic from Google's reWork website below shows the eight behaviors ranked in order of importance.

Google Project Oxygen.jpg

The identified behaviors are ones that we have all heard before but for Google there were some important lessons. One is that technical skills didn't come up until number 8 which was surprising for a company like Google where technical skills are so highly valued. Secondly, the results came directly from the experience of Google employees rather than other companies so it was easier to get them to buy into the results. A third lesson was that ranking and limiting the number to 8 allowed them to prioritize using the data to make improvements. Getting a list of 15 or 20 great manager behaviors without the context of personal experience and ranking importance happens all the time and usually ends up being an end rather than a beginning like Project Oxygen.


Managers Do Matter, Now What?

The People Ops team at Google didn't want the end result to be the data gathering exercise that resulted in the 8 behaviors (internally called the Oxygen 8). They wanted to use the data to drive action to help their managers improve. First they had to get buy in from the managers. Google's culture is based on consensus and buy in rather than mandate. The team asked to be invited to staff meetings and other gatherings to share the findings from Project Oxygen which they then asked the managers to communicate through their groups. 

They integrated the 8 attributes into surveys that would be sent out twice a year to gather feedback for managers. The employees did not have to complete the surveys but it turned out that most did complete them. The surveys would have statements such as "My manager gives me actionable feedback that helps me improve my performance" (be a good coach attribute) and "My manager keeps the team focused on our priority results/deliverables" (be productive and results-oriented attribute). For each statement the survey respondents would answer with "strongly agree", "agree", "neutral", "disagree" or "strongly disagree". A few weeks after the survey results are completed the managers receive the feedback that includes a score on each statement/attribute and specific comments that were also completed by the respondents. 

After a few rounds of the surveys, the People Ops team developed training courses that were linked directly to the online results the managers were viewing making it easy for them to get guidance to improve in the areas they were deficient. Some managers were surprised by some results and found the feedback useful as they were not aware of it otherwise. Overall as a group managers were able to improve scores through the feedback and training. The lower score managers made the biggest gains.

Project Oxygen for One

Project Oxygen was a great example of an organization going from data to knowledge. They started with the data they were already capturing in their performance reviews but decided to really dig in, understand and use the data. This is not an approach that every organization would take or perhaps can take at present. However, even at Google there were managers that did well exhibiting these traits before Project Oxygen. They may have learned it through experience at another company or on their own. So it seems possible to improve as managers without having a full blown organizational project like Project Oxygen.

There's a lot to be said for self learning.  To paraphrase autodidact, Will Hunting (played by Matt Damon) from a scene in the movie, Good Will Hunting, "you dropped 150 grand on an education you could have got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library!" Those were 1997 prices by the way. I'm a big proponent of a college education but self learning is usually the primary way we learn for most of our lives. The opportunities to learn free online today are many magnitudes more than when the public library was the only free resource. 

Starting with a self assessment, learning more about a few of the top 8 traits and then applying what you learn is a great first step and it's unlikely that the results would not be positive. It may not result in a giant leap but a step forward is a step forward.

A Note on the Featured Image

I didn't go with an image related to Google but chose one with Steve Kerr, head coach, and his Golden State Warriors team. Sports coaches are very high profile so you get to see their leadership in action and to their dismay, dissected by the media on a regular basis. In the corporate world you usually see leadership in action  if you are part of that organization and also if you are not too far removed from the manager. When I read through the 8 traits I realized that they are all embodied by many of the coaches that do very well in sports. Except for one - # 2 Empowers team and does not micromanage. That's not one that typically comes to mind although within their coaching staff that most likely does happen to a certain extent. However, Steve Kerr seems to apply that to his players and lower level employees as well. He's made changes based on feedback from the team outside his higher level coaching assistants. So far it's been very successful but what else would we expect from the coach of  Silicon Valley's team.