Work Rules! Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead

By Laszlo Bock

Rating: 10/10

Best Line #1: Those of you who, in the face of fear and failure, persevere and hold true to your principles, who interpose yourselves between the forces and faces buffeting the organization, will mold the soul of the institution with your words and deeds. And these will be the organizations that people will want to be a part of.

Best Line #2: A thoughtfully designed experiment, and the patience to wait for and measure the results, will reveal reality to you.

The Great Misunderstanding

Catbert is one of the best characters in the Dilbert universe. As the “evil director of human resources”, this much-maligned feline wreaks havoc with his “random policy generator” and general tactics of oppression. Such is the power of an HR department, right? Perhaps. It is just a comic strip, though, and the humor really shows the great misunderstanding which HR professionals must wrestle against every day.

Think of it in terms of janitorial service. If you have people who keep the office clean, you might start to think that a clean office is no longer your responsibility. You might see an overturned garbage can and think I don’t have to clean this mess. We have people for that.  

Now apply that logic to an ethics office. I don’t have to be ethical. We have people for that.    

In both cases, the second sentence is true. There are people who are responsible for those things. But the first sentence is false because those “people” aren’t alone. Cleanliness and ethical behavior is everyone’s responsibility.

So it goes with HR. I’ve long contended that the very essence of management is the stuff of Human Resources. Or, as it’s called at Google, People Operations. There is more to management, of course, but the stuff that usually comprises the HR department (culture, compensation, conduct) is the proverbial bedrock. Especially in larger organizations.

This is why Laszlo Bock’s book, Work Rules!, is so very important. I consider it the best book written on organizational development. Because, really, that’s what HR and People Relations is all about. I’ve read more than a few of these (it’s one of my favorite topics) and what I appreciate most about Bock’s work is the data-driven approach, the proven insights he brings as a practitioner, and the underlying principles that constitute the philosophy. Those principles manifest in ten eponymous work rules we’ll explore in a moment.

But first, it should be stated that this book was written in 2015. That is a good thing. Most of the books I feature come from a similar timeframe. Why? Because these are the books that balance the need for insights that are timely and proven.

Amazon will show you newer books but many of them aren’t proven. They need time and testing. Meanwhile, the books that have proven wisdom offer the same basic things Bock wrote four years ago. But unlike Bock’s work, they lack the practitioner’s expertise and the direct evidence of this wonderful, data-driven, compassionate-yet-dispassionate approach.

I’m a big fan.

The Ten Work Rules

So here are the ten rules that Bock and the team at Google have developed over years of excellent practice:

  1. Give your work meaning.
  2. Trust your people.
  3. Hire only people who are better than you.
  4. Don’t confuse development with managing performance.
  5. Focus on the two tails.
  6. Be frugal and generous.
  7. Pay unfairly.
  8. Nudge.
  9. Manage the rising expectations.
  10. Enjoy! And then go back to No. 1 and start again.

Aside from #5, this list feels wildly obvious. As with most profound things. The phrase “You can’t get a hit if you aren’t swinging” is obvious, simplistic, and yet a rare fundamental truth that is proven with every new story of success. So it goes.

I’ll go one step further and offer another List of Obvious Things, this one being The Eight Attributes of a Good Manager. As discovered through Google’s fabulous Project Oxygen:

  1. Be a good coach.
  2. Empower the team and do not micromanage.
  3. Express interest/concern for team members’ success and personal well-being.
  4. Be very productive/results-oriented.
  5. Be a good communicator—listen and share information.
  6. Help the team with career development.
  7. Have a clear vision/strategy for the team.
  8. Have important technical skills that help advise the team.

This list has grown and the syntax has changed since its original publication. A fresher version can be found at this link. All the same, when you read this, you might have the same reaction as me. Which is: yep; kinda obvious. And this is how Bock reacted, too. As he writes:

We now had a prescription for building great managers, but it was a list of, quite frankly, pretty dull, noncontroversial statements. To make it meaningful and, more important, something that would improve the performance of the company, we had to be more specific. For example, of course the best managers are good coaches!

It is a relief to hear an author acknowledge how dull and unsurprising these findings are. It speaks to the broader intellectual honesty that pervades the whole book. With that kind of recognition, Bock and the team came to understand that this knowledge changes nothing. It is not new information. We’ve known these things forever. So what, pray tell, can be done with it?

More training!

Right?

No. Definitely not more training. This is where so much of the traditional “HR” approach loses steam. The great power HR professionals have to offer is found in the systems they can honestly, humbly develop as opposed to the platitudes and standards they can forcefully impose (a’la Catbert). So when it comes to the eight (now ten) attributes of good management, Bock drew from a couple excellent sources to arrive at the following (emphasis added):

I realized that management … is phenomenally complex. It’s a lot to ask of any leader to be a product visionary or a financial genius or a marketing wizard as well as an inspiring manager. But if we could reduce good management to a checklist, we wouldn’t need to invest millions of dollars in training, or try to convince people why one style of leadership is better than another. We wouldn’t have to change who they were. We could just change how they behave.  

Confession: I did a fist pump the first I read this. Honestly. It still fires me up. In fact, I’m doing a fist pump now. I’m typing one-handed. Seriously.

Bock’s realization hits so many right notes for me. It gets to a broader approach that I’ve been trying to develop in far too many ways ever since I first heard this quote from Charlie Munger:

No wise pilot, no matter how great his talent and experience, fails to use his checklist.

Later, of course, this argument was strengthened by Atul Gawande’s 2011 book The Checklist Manifesto. This slim volume has lots of great guidance that people to this day love to ignore.

But not Bock. Not Google. They drew the lessons from Gawande and Munger and developed one of the best developmental approaches for managers that I’ve seen: the Upward Feedback Survey and report. The link will send you to the latest version available.

They built a system, in other words, an ever-evolving system to strengthen the managers in the organization. And it didn’t stop there. It never stops.  

What’s Good For The Managers …

I should return to the Ten Work Rules for a brief moment and mention that this book is not really about managers. Or management. As stated in the title, this is about organizational development. And the approach that led to the Upward Feedback Survey and the checklist approach for management is similar to the structured, programmatic, experimental practices you’ll find elsewhere in the writing. It is part of a scalable, reliable approach to “HR” that we desperately need in all organizations.  

No one can deny the ten work rules make sense. There’s a lot of power in them. In fact, the rule and subsequent chapter on “managing the two tails” conveys the greatest universal benefit to everything related to your workplace, be it culture, performance, or broader resilience over time.

Yet, I wish this book could have been another four hundred pages. Because what the rest of us need isn’t just these clear, understandable, validated rules. We need the knowledge, tools, and skills to implement them in a similar fashion. We need to know how to take the same approach to implementation.  Bock does his best to help. He describes the way Google developed their various experiments and pilots and programs. So few people seem to get it, though.

An employee survey to test management’s performance on the eight attributes? Sure thing. We can do that.

Another survey to assess the organization’s ability to deliver on the ten work rules? Got it.

But that’s just more information. How can we, as members of other organizations, then spin those results into tests? More importantly, how can we develop a practice to monitor the progress, store the data, conduct analysis, find patterns, and adopt the fortitude to go wherever the reliable data leads?  

Once we see the behavior, how can we change it?

The ability to spark great change in a data-driven, programmatic fashion is a whole other level of ability. It’s the stuff that rhymes with practices covered in my study of The Lean Startup. And presumably a whole other book that someone (Bock?) needs to write (please?).

I’m doing what I can. Many of us are. One step at a time, right? As we strive forward, we find the broader intricacies and truths of organizational development to be richer and more powerful than we expect. There is a lot we don’t understand about this work. But some know more than others. Bock and the people he works with have something important to offer.

Here’s a link to the book.