Why manage?

Google veterans tried an experiment where all employees were equal, with no team leaders, and it taught them an important lesson  

Published 5 years ago on Jun 08, 2019 4 minutes Read

In July 2001, Google was on the verge of its third birthday and had recently launched the AdWords advertising product, which would soon propel it into the stratosphere. The company had several hundred employees, including many software engineers working under Wayne Rosing, a former Apple and Sun executive who had joined the company six months earlier. Wayne wasn’t happy with the performance of his current set of managers. They were strong engineers, but not great managers. So he discussed his concerns with Larry and Sergey, and they came up with a somewhat radical idea that they brought to Eric. They would get rid of all the managers in the engineering organization. Wayne and Eric decided to call it a “disorg”: all those software engineers, reporting directly to Wayne.

Larry and Sergey loved the idea. Neither of them had ever worked in a formal business before, and both liked the less structured environment of a university, where students come together for projects, often under the auspices of an advisor, and none are “managed.” Coming from the academic world, they had always been skeptical of the role of a manager. Why do you need a manager? Why not just let these supertalented engineers work on projects, and when the project is done, or their work on the project is done, they can go pick another project? If company execs needed to know how a particular project was going, why talk to a manager who may not be actually doing the work? Why not just go talk to the engineer? Never mind that the first manager was probably created within minutes of the first company. This was Google, where convention went to die.
And so started Google’s experiment of running a fast-moving product development team without managers. This was right around the time that Bill started working with the company. Larry and Sergey were just getting used to working alongside Eric, and now they had yet another newcomer hanging around. Bill took his time, getting to know Eric, Larry, Sergey, and other members of the executive team mostly by dropping by in the evenings, when things were more relaxed. He spent the time talking to people about what they were doing and their vision for the company, getting to know the company and the culture.

During one of these conversations Bill mentioned to Larry that “we have to get some managers in here.” Larry was nonplussed. After all, he had just gotten rid of all the managers, and he was quite happy with that. Why does a company of several hundred employees, shipping a product that would eventually generate billions in revenue, need managers? Weren’t we doing better without them?
This went on for a while, the argument going back and forth, both men firm in their convictions. Finally Bill took a page from Larry’s book and suggested that they just go talk to the engineers. He, Larry, and Sergey wandered down the hall until they found a couple of software engineers working. Bill asked one of them if he wanted a manager.

Yes, came the response.


“I want someone I can learn from, and someone to break ties.”

They chatted with several software engineers that night, and most of the responses were similar. These engineers liked being managed, as long as their manager was someone from whom they could learn something, and someone who helped make decisions. Bill was right! Although it took a while to convince the founders of this: Google engineering continued in “disorg” mode for more than a year. We finally called it quits and brought back people managers near the end of 2002.
“In fact, academic research finds merit in both approaches. A 1991 study finds that when a company is in the implementation stage of an innovation (such as when Google was developing its search engine and AdWords), they need managers to help coordinate resources and resolve conflicts. However, a 2005 study finds that creativity flourishes in environments, such as Broadway shows, that are more network-oriented than hierarchical. So there’s always tension between creativity and operational efficiency.

To Bill, being an executive of a successful company is all about management, about creating operational excellence. As a manager and CEO, Bill was very good at making sure his teams delivered. He brought people together and created a strong team culture, but never lost sight of the fact that results mattered, and that they were a direct result of good management. “You have to think about how you’re going to run a meeting,” he told a group of Googlers in a management seminar. “How you’re going to run an operations review. You’ve got to be able to look at someone in a one-on-one and know how to help them course correct. People who are successful run their companies well. They have good processes, they make sure their people are accountable, they know how to hire great people, how to evaluate them and give them feedback, and they pay them well.”
This is an extract from The Trillion Dollar Coach published by Harper Business