The Brain at Google

How Google makes smart employees even smarter

Posted Dec 06, 2009

Like most people who use a computer, I have long been fascinated with Google. Google search seems to know exactly what I want before even I know it. I loved recently discovering by accident that it will do math for you (try it!).

As someone who focuses on improving organizational cultures, I have also long been fascinated by Google the company. And so I was most excited to go to their HQ recently and give a talk as part of the Google 'Tech Talk' series.

The talk itself involved how to maximize internal data processing. In other words, how to ramp up the amount of information you process each day. The talk was a summary of the big ideas in 'Your Brain at Work', and you can watch the whole video here on YouTube.

What I discovered on this visit was that Google do appear to understand a lot about human nature, and they apply these findings to how they run their company. Some of their more quirky ideas, while being sometimes laughed about in the media, are actually based in science. Here's what I came to discover on my tour of the Googleplex.

The Club Med of corporations
Having two young children, I found to my horror recently that I was going to a Club Med for one of our family vacations. A day or so into the holiday I discovered something surprising. The formula at Club Med is to include pretty much everything in the price, activities, food, even drinks, giving you fewer decisions to make. Now I know the research on decision making, and how making any conscious decision uses a measurable amount of glucose, but I wasn't prepared for how relaxing it was not having to think anywhere near as much, even about simple things. It turned out to be a remarkably restful holiday.

Google have realized this same thing. When you work at Google, you get to save your limited mental resoures for the most important decisions. As Google's CEO Eric Schmidt said, "Let’s face it: programmers want to program, they don’t want to do their laundry. So we make it easy for them to do both.”

At Google's headquarters in Mountain View, there's not just laundry facilities, there's also a gym, fitness classes, massage therapy, a hair stylist and medical support. There's also car wash, oil change,and even bike repair. All thrown in. Employees are able to focus much more on their work, because they don't have to focus on other distractions. Distractions, as I wrote about a while back, are suprisingly tiring. Other companies could do well to do the same, noticing what their employees end up wasting their attention on, and doing something about it. It is sure making me rethink my own company's benefits policies.

The outcome? As far as I could tell from my half day there, the vibe was not the 'bunkered down, geek-in the-dark-room' type company. People seemed sincerely passionate about their work, in a way you normally only see in small start ups or family companies. Of course, working at Google would give you a 'status high', and they do hire smart people. Yet as someone who visits several companies every week, there was something different in the air. It may have been the fact that they have a policy of never being more than 100 feet away from a food station, a policy which turns out to be very useful when you are chewing up glucose thinking hard all day. Or perhaps it is more than that.

Attention is a limited (and valuable) resource

I think that the leadership at Google has an intuitive understanding of human nature, and the way attention is a limited resource. By minimizing distractions (and keeping up their glucose,) Google employees get to do more of what they want, which is to create cool things, and that's inherently rewarding. New ideas, new connections are energizing.

In their search business, Google knows the power of shaving milliseconds off the time people have to pay attention to something. It is applying the same principle to it's employees -  respecting attention as a limited resource. I suspect that Google's founders pay a lot of attention to attention. Metacognition, as it is called, or thinking about thinking, is something that individuals can do. It improves the integration of the brain, making you more adaptive. It may be an asset at an organizational level too.

Happy, in-control employees are more flexible thinkers
As well as minimizing distractions and respecting attention, Google does other things to help their people be more productive, in particular being more productive at complex problem solving. There is some very good research showing that people experiencing happy emotions solve more problems, especially ones that require non-linear thinking. Mark Beeman has done some great research on the brain around this, showing 'positive mood alters preparatory activity in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex, biasing participants to engage in processing conducive to insight solving. This result suggests that positive mood enhances insight, at least in part, by modulating attention and cognitive control mechanisms via ACC, perhaps enhancing sensitivity to detect non-prepotent solution candidates.' In other words, when you are happy, you are more able to notice subtle signals, the tickle at the back of your mind with a possible solution to a problem. At Google I noticed this first hand: During my talk I gave the group a puzzle I've given to several thousand other smart people, at some of the leading investment banks and other top firms around the US. Normally I may get at best one person out of 100 solve this puzzle. It is an insight puzzle that requires flexible thinking. At Google, they answered all the puzzles as fast as I could read them out, with many in the group calling out the answers. (You can see this occur live in the video.) I don't think it is just raw intelligence, its an openness to thinking differently, which requires something as basic as feeling generally happy.

In my final moments visiting the site, as I had a free ice cream from the freezer, I looked outside and something wonderful caught my eye. On one whole side of the building, instead of planting the usual shrubs to make the buiding look nice, there were hundreds of strawberry plants. It takes happy people to think like this, and it sure made me feel happy to see it.

Increasing happiness (and therefore innovation) requires subtle levers
I am often asked to help companies develop a more innovative culture, and here was a company where innovation was off the charts. But I think it is more than just innovation being encouraged. I don't think the beach volleyball courts, table tennis tables and chill out areas do all that much to make people happy, the culture emerges from more subtle levers. And happiness at Google is not a function of a 'lack of stress' - people at Google are under pressure, working hard, doing long hours, and dealing with the many challenges of running a global organization. They even had budget cuts recently. So, what is different at Google?

I think the difference is that Google have worked out how to offset the threat response inherent in hard work with a range of deep rewards. These rewards are intangible and subtle, and many companies miss their importance. First there is the sense of autonomy and control that googlers experience, through having access to basic services that normally distract one from life. They literally drop their laundry off in the morning and pick it up that day, and don't have to think about it. The company also respects issues of fairness , you can see it in the details of their hiring policies and their truly diverse workforce. A sense of fairness can be deeply rewarding for the brain. There is also a strong feeling of relatedness created across the group, whether its the large food hall where everyone eats together, the open lay out of the buildings or the various activities that googlers do together. (I heard that one of the founders still plays beach volleyball in the courtyard with everyone regularly.)

Between having high status from working for a leading global firm, the extra certainty that comes from working for a large firm, a high degree of autonomy, a sense of relatedness and fairness, Google has managed to tap into all five of the major drivers of rewards in the brain. They have hit the jackpot of the SCARF model, where people are challenged, but feel in control and rewarded daily by their work (There's more on this in an article called 'Managing with the brain in mind'.)

When it comes to creating positive organizational cultures, small things may count more than we realize. Work is by nature stressful, and the more that companies can offset that stress (a threat response), by tapping into the brain's own reward systems, the more engaged and effective people can be. Google is not a great company just because of a great search product, it is innovating all the way down to how it organizes, engages and rewards its people. The result is one of the most successful companies in history.