Google’s motto was “Don’t be evil.” It’s a tagline that’s much maligned— ripe for twitter dunking and sets a low bar for expectations. Giving Google the benefit of the doubt though, this is an idea that speaks clearly. It is negative, in that it doesn’t assert some utopian unachievable goal, and is a simple measuring stick for a Google employee to ask of themselves and their work. When compared to IBM’s “Think”, or Apple’s mocking “Think different”, you can see this as genuine. This is something a few people thought up in a room instead of filtered through an ad firm with a bunch of focus groups. For the cynic though, the question was always not if, but when will Google fall short of the measure it set for itself.
Global regulation, global competition, and size are putting Google’s traditions to the test. The latest news out of Mountain View, covered in a recent article in Wired, is of the end of Google’s standing weekly all-hands meeting.
The loss of TGIF is huge. The ability to ask the boss any question in a timely fashion was a powerful symbol of employee empowerment. The practice began when Google was relatively tiny, as a relaxed session—beer was served!—where cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin took queries, no matter how challenging, from anyone who cared to ask. The company even invented an app that allowed employees to rank potential questions, so pressing ones would get precedence.
[Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai] cited decreased attendance rates, the difficulty of running a real-time gathering across time zones, and an uptick in meetings among big product groups like Cloud or YouTube. His most resonant reason, however, was that Google employees could no longer be trusted to keep matters confidential. He cited “a coordinated effort to share our conversations outside of the company after every TGIF … it has affected our ability to use TGIF as a forum for candid conversations on important topics.” He also noted that while many want to hear about product launches and business strategies, some attend to “hear answers on other topics.” It seems obvious he was referring to recent moments when aggrieved employees registered objections to Google’s policies and missteps—on developing a search engine for China, bestowing millions of dollars to executives charged with sexual misconduct, or hiring a former Homeland Security apparatchik. Pichai says Google may address such issues in specific town-hall meetings when warranted.
Certainly the most intriguing detail here is the leaks. But if Pichai’s email is factual, the more pernicious element is attendance — only 25% of the company was at the meetings. Ten years ago it was 80% attendance. Pichai may indeed be putting the nail in the coffin, but 3/4 of the Google staff killed the meeting before Pichai even made this announcement.
On one hand, canceling this meeting is good. It is a recognition that it’s not working and is an attempt at something better. Indeed, Pichai plans to “…keep holding regular Social TGIFs in offices around the world (this is really important, and is how the original concept of TGIF began).” The efforts to maintain its most salient components are encouraging, but this change is in some ways the most troubling part: the Social TGIF cannot function at scale. This is not necessarily a specific criticism of Google and may be more an observation of humanity, but it is certainly proof that Google has failed to scale up one of its most iconic cultural features.
As Google surpasses a 100,000 employee count, faces ongoing antitrust issues, and works towards integration in the Chinese market, the question is what will be the next institutional casualty.
Alphabet now has a new motto, “do the right thing”. One hopes this applies to more than fiduciary duty.