In 2002, the CEO of a small, four-year-old company pinned a note to the wall in the office kitchen. The note read, “These ads suck.”1
This was not the act of a typical CEO—but then, this was not a typical company. The CEO in question was Larry Page, and the company was Google. Page had been playing around with the Google site, typing in search terms and reviewing the ads that subsequently appeared in relation to those terms. He was displeased with many of the paid ads in particular. They seemed unrelated to the search terms. For example, a search for a term like “Kawasaki H1B,” a model of motorcycle, would display results for lawyers offering help with H1B visas and other unrelated services. This was in the early days for the project called AdWords, and it was not going all that well.
Page printed out the questionable ads, highlighted them, and posted them on the wall with his note. He then went home for the weekend, saying nothing to anyone about the issue. Later that night, an engineer called Jeff Dean saw the note. Working in a different area of the company, Dean had no particular reason to pay attention to this or do anything about it. But he went back to his desk and, without informing anyone, began playing around with the problem. Ignoring his own work, he continued to grapple with this complex problem, a problem that the best minds at Google had yet to resolve despite months of effort. He then returned to the office on Saturday to continue working on the problem. He returned again late Sunday and proceeded to work through the night. At 5:05 on Monday morning he sent an email outlining a detailed fix, then disappeared off home to bed.
The fix resolved the problem, and dramatically boosted the accuracy of the AdWords engine. This subsequently led to AdWords’ becoming the dominant pay-per-click engine. The following year, Google’s profits went from $6 million to $99 million. By 2014, AdWords was generating revenues of $120 million per day. Today, Google is among the most valuable companies on the planet.
When I look at most organizations today, I see places where this could never have happened. Why would people fix a problem for another department without being asked? Why would they work through the night and over the weekend to get it done with no obvious incentive? Would they even be allowed to do so without permission? The answer is a thing called engagement, and it’s a rare thing indeed.
Along with finance, human resources (HR) departments are, with a few rare exceptions, ignored by most organizations seeking to increase their agility. I have always found this astounding—especially given that the first (and, for me, most important) value of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, written back in 2001, is “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” Organizations can only ever be as effective as their people. Becoming a high-performing agile organization is a process that starts and ends with people, yet for many entities it begins without first ensuring that the department that looks after people is safely on board the bus, or at least heading in the same direction. If we need people to behave, think, and work in different ways to achieve agility, does it not make sense to involve those who set the policies and incentives in that area?