“The Google I was passionate about was a technology company that empowered its employees to innovate. The Google I left was an advertising company with a single corporate-mandated focus,” James Whittaker wrote in Why I Left Google. “The days of old Google hiring smart people and empowering them to invent the future was gone. The new Google knew beyond doubt what the future should look like. Employees had gotten it wrong and corporate intervention would set it right again.”
Google And The New Science
When I read Whittaker’s post this morning, I couldn’t help but think about my favorite author, Margaret Wheatley. I wondered what she would have to say about his description of the recent “transformation” at Google. Google has always seemed, from an outsider’s perspective, to be the embodiment of the new science principles Wheatley outlines in her book, Leadership And The New Science.
Her book is, without question, the most important business book I’ve ever read. In it she looks at how chaos theory, quantum physics, and self-organizing systems challenge old ways of thinking about how organizations can and should be run. Wheatley describes the standard ways of thinking in companies to be tied to “old science,” to old concepts, Newton’s concepts, where the “command and control” organizational foundations drew their energy.
The new science, quantum theory, began to chip away at the underpinnings of Newtonian physics in the early 1900’s. A century later, we are still just beginning to understand the implications of what our new, more accurate understanding of nature and science means to how we interact with it. And we’ve certainly only scratched the surface of how it can play a significant role in teaching us how to better interact with each other in organizations.
“Each of us lives and works in organizations designed from Newtonian images of the universe,” Wheatley wrote. “We manage by separating things into parts, we believe that influence occurs as a direct result of a force exerted from one person to another, we engage in complex planning for a world that we keep expecting to be predictable, and we search continually for better methods of objectively measuring and perceiving the world.”
A Lapse Into Newtonian Thinking?
And this is what struck me this morning when reading Whittaker’s descriptions of the changes made inside Google. “Larry Page himself assumed command to right this wrong.” It appears Google, the company that has been a model of innovation through self-organization, has slipped back a century into a model based on outdated science.
In an interview with Scott London, Wheatley said, “If you’re interested in creating sustainable growth, sustainable productivity, sustainable morale, you can’t do that through autocracy.” There may be notable exceptions, but when a company culture is built on one set of values, shifting to a whole new set of values can be a catastrophe. Especially when thats not the intended goal. Values are the dark matter of human relationships, and inside an organization they are the “unseen but real forces that influence people’s behavior.”
If Whittaker’s description of what has changed at Google is accurate and not merely the rant of a disgruntled employee, then there has been a disruption in that force. And if Margaret Wheatley is correct about how this energy inside an organization works, and I believe she is, that disruption could mean rough times ahead. Google has proven what can happen when a company embraces chaos and empowers people to act as self-organizing co-creators.
I, for one, hope their lapse into Newtonian thinking is temporary.
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Photo By paul mccoubrie via Flickr.