The culture of collaboration: What I had to unlearn to work like a Googler [guest post by Kate Johnson, Google]

Version 5

    Hello change managers!


    I'm very happy to share today's guest blog post - written by my good friend, colleague and 'change manager extraordinaire' Kate Johnson. I loved reading this article and hope you do too!







    Hi all, my name is Kate Johnson and I am the Google for Work Change and Transformation Specialist for North America, based in the Chicago office.  Kim’s invitation to guest blog got me thinking about the journey I’ve taken to work and collaborate like a Googler - and the culture that accompanies that experience. 


    I am not a Google native. I came to the company with my own particular work habits - like the compulsion to save my work every other minute, deriving comfort with every control ‘s’.  Now I take automatic file saving for granted, burying the angst of lost work along with life’s other minor tragedies.


    Nor did I come from a super collaborative culture.  I only emailed my colleagues presentations after I had sunk hours into building a minor work of PowerPoint art - and yes, all my work was shared via email (you're welcome IT).   Never-mind that the hours spent on those presentations were often wasted, as I would learn later that my manager had envisioned a totally different direction than what I had depicted in lovely shapes and images.   


    You might think that - upon becoming a Googler and switching to Google Apps - I would instantly start ‘plussing in’ my colleagues once I built a presentation framework, adding documents to my calendar invites so others could join in during the meeting, and posting the end result to G+ - right? Well, I proved them wrong. These were behaviours I learned, but only after being prodded - multiple times.  


    When I was initially asked to edit others’ work, I was paralyzed: do I write in the doc, use red-lining (wait - suggestion mode!), or comment? What if people don’t like my edits and their edits are lost?! Panic! Then I would remember the ‘Revision History’ function. 


    And ‘follow’ our executive leadership on G+ and share my opinions? Ask the Larry Page a question at our weekly TGIF Town Hall? No way. Unless I had an encyclopedia of data and experience to reference, forget it. That is, until I realized that all my colleagues were not only following our senior leaders, but also sharing their experience. 


    I also found myself having to resist the urge to hoard documents - or create a new, private document every time I came up with a different approach or idea. Scary as it was to ‘lift the veil’ on in-progress work, I found that the instant feedback saved me from going down the wrong path and wasting hours in the process - or helped pull-in content that I didn’t have.  And rather than get admonished for sharing a half-baked presentation, I found it calmed my manager and/or colleagues to see that I was working on it and that we were aligned on the approach - or that we would then speak sooner to avoid rework.


    That was now two years ago and I’ve come full circle, as I now represent Google to other organizations who want to know how Google works - and what they can learn. Many organisations deploying Google Apps are also seeking a change in culture or working style that lets employees work faster and more collaboratively. Some basic tenets of Google’s culture are to:

    • Default to open and share everything: In other words, don’t let my sense of pride or self sufficiency get in the way of getting the job done quicker and better by collaborating with inviting others in. 
    • Appreciate that ideas come from everywhere (including me); have the courage to jump in (to a document, G+ post, or meeting) and share ideas
    • Get comfortable working fast, launching and iterating. The worst that can happen is that that you don’t nail it first time around, learn something in the process and come back with an even stronger version.

    What’s hard is that this culture requires different behaviors than many current work environments. To work like a Googler, I had to first get comfortable using Google Apps collaboration functionality, specifically:

    • Sharing controls, like knowing which audience should get ‘View’ access (external audiences); who should get ‘Comment’ access (extended colleagues), and who should get “Edit” access (my immediate team)
    • Finding and grabbing old content from previous versions using Revision history.
    • Requesting input, feedback or edits from others by using the comment function and ‘plussing’ someone in

    That was the easy part. The bigger challenge was to get comfortable with the culture that typically accompanies Google Apps. To succeed as a Googler, I had to unlearn my fear of:

    • Transparency: The first time I opened a document and saw a stranger’s profile, or got a stranger’s access request, I felt oddly exposed, and then curious as to why that person was in the document. That curiosity later turned into the realization that a colleague in a different department was working on a similar initiative. While one might feel exposed or vulnerable, this is how ideas build and innovation takes shape. Besides, at least now I knew who else was looking my documents!
    • Receiving feedback: Sharing early and often means getting feedback from all realms - and getting it a lot faster.  I didn’t realize how much I ‘worked’ out of my inbox until I started using the comment feature to request my colleagues add input directly into the document. While I love the time savings, I still find myself groaning (initially) when I get feedback counter to my own view and need to take extra time to reconcile. That said, this feedback always results in a stronger product and I’m ultimately grateful I had these conversations earlier on in the process.
    • Focusing on impact: My customers don’t benefit when I waste time agonizing over shapes and verbiage. Getting an asset or document out at speed, rather than waiting for perfection, most often meets the need at hand and progresses the issue or conversation.   More often than not, getting ideas out into the organization and having conversations has a bigger and quicker impact than me working in isolation on a document. 
    • Simplicity: It's not just our tools that are designed to be simple. Everything we do is focused on simplicity - be it in design or presentation.  Oftentimes what I feel is too simple for my audience is actually just what they want. Less text equals clearer messages and better presentations.


    These behaviours ran counter to those I had adapted in my previous roles and organizations, that ran across all reaches of the political or hierarchical spectrum. I’m sure many of you have your own ‘behavioural baggage’ that you had to shed during your transition to Google Apps. I’d love to hear any comments or personal stories below.


    Shedding these behaviors is a process that can be supported with new technology - but must be reinforced by an organization’s leaders and people.  In part, Googlers work quickly and efficiently because they use tools like Google Apps that allow them to work alongside their colleagues, get feedback early and often, and reduce redundancy. The other part is that Google has cultivated a culture that both encourages and expects behaviours that enable speed and innovation.


    As a leader or advocate in your organization, see if there are ways you can guide your colleagues towards a greater culture of collaboration, whether that’s through showing them how to use the collaborative functionality, encouraging them to share documents and opinions widely, or simply helping them to take risks in order to make a big impact.  Watch and see how these efforts can influence those around you and flourish.


    I look forward to hearing your comments or questions below.