The Nonprofit Bookshelf: How Google Works


The focus of How Google Works by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg is the importance of hiring the right people — “smart creatives” — and giving them room to do the job. It is full of great stories of how various products took off and were improved by entrepreneurial staff. Like when co-founder Larry Page, saw a page of ugly ads on a Google Search page, printed them out with a note that read “THESE ADS SUCK.” Without being directed, some engineers saw it and were fired up to take the weekend to resolve the algorithm, building a key feature to ads that move the product forward.
How can nonprofits be more like @Google without having the resources of… you know, Google? There's a book for that… @ericschmidt @jjrosenberg #NonprofitBookshelf Click To Tweet


The idea of “smart creatives” is the obvious reveal of the book

“They are not limited in their access to the company’s information and computing power. They are not averse to taking risks, nor are they punished or held back in any way when those risky initiatives fail… They don’t keep quiet when they disagree with something. They get bored easily and shift jobs a lot. They are multidimensional, usually combining technical depth with business savvy and creative flair. In other words, they are not knowledge workers, at least not in the traditional sense. They are a new kind of animal, a type we call a “smart creative,” and they are the key to achieving success in the Internet Century.” How Google Works by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg

The concept comes off a bit like a goldilocks hire, but it is still good to have a vision of what the type of hire needed is. The interesting note for us was the dogged consistency with which they hired this type of technical creative person and gave them the freedom to explore.


Google actually looks for “Googliness,” which is a mashup of passion and drive that’s hard to define but easy to spot. For a data-focused company, it’s funny to see such a soft, seemingly gut instinct test applied to hiring. However, it is smart to allow room for the soft science metrics of recruiting people that will work well together. It also helped Google attract (rather than “recruit”) the kind of inspired people that fit this model.


Provide the room to be creative and get out of employee’s ways

Filling a room full of “smart creatives” with “Googliness” would still have failed in a rigid environment that forced draconian processes. The belief that ‘inspired employees are better than inspiring leaders’ and managers helped make employees more self-directed in their projects.
Google’s early purpose and values helped shape the grand thinking and innovative approaches to the massive problem of organizing the world’s information.

Dealing with loud personalities: Knaves vs Divas

It is inevitable that hiring rockstars will bring in some loud personalities that may clash.

Knavish behavior is a product of low integrity; diva-ish behavior is one of high exceptionalism. Knaves prioritize the individual over the team; divas think they are better than the team, but want success equally for both. Knaves need to be dealt with as quickly as possible.” – How Google Works by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg

Google tolerates the divas as long as they prioritize the team’s success when delivering outsized results. To translate for nonprofits, the sector can attract passionate personalities that drive hard for the change they want to see in the world. These personalities can clash in an organization, so it important that the team’s success is first in mind when dealing with these kinds of high performing players.


OKRs: The Hidden Gem of How Google Works

For our money, the biggest find in this book is how Google fosters a creative environment while keeping the framework of organizational goals in mind by using OKRS. Objectives and Key Results were introduced by John Doerr (an early venture backer of Google and Amazon) in 1999, back when Google used a massive spreadsheet that listed their 100 top projects with 1 to 5 rankings.
The hidden gem of #HowGoogleWorks? How @ericschmidt @jjrosenberg break down @Google's system of OKRs. More on the #NonprofitBookshelf. Click To Tweet
The OKR framework had an immediate impact on the alignment of the grand vision of the founders and the engineers working on the day-to-day. This system is still used today at Google and has clearly scaled with the organization. We were so excited about this management framework at Whole Whale that we implemented it after reading the book in 2017. The system is flexible, transparent and has done wonders to align our work every quarter.
In the nonprofit world, this framework is awesome for connecting the everyday work of departments with the larger mission and vision of the organization. The OKR model is ideal for building a direct, measurable bridge to grand visions that come from the leader.
Watch an in-depth session on OKRs from Stanford, or read John Doerr’s new book, Measure What Matters to learn more.

What was your favorite part of How Google Works? Share it with us by tweeting @WholeWhale with #NonprofitBookshelf.


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