I recently finished reading How Google Works, which highlights the lessons learned throughout the years as Google started to scale. Eric Schmidt, Google’s Executive Chairman and former CEO, tells an interesting story about the time when he really understood that Google was a different type of company from others he had run. Larry Page had been testing out the ad word engine, and found some pretty mismatched ads coming up. He realized the search terms he had used were hard to match based on just trying to find the closest string match. Rather than call any meetings or forward it to someone to deal with, he printed the results out, wrote “These Ads Suck” and posted them on the wall. A group of Google employees, not even on the ad team, came up with a prototype solution over the weekend and sent it to the company, laying down one of the key innovations for Google AdWords, which then became a multi-billion dollar business.
This story was in the book not to reflect Larry’s great leadership per se, but rather to show the amazing team and culture of doing things regardless of whether they were a part of a specified role within the company. This led me to think about Dimagi, the Dimagi culture, and how this story relates to the environment we are trying to cultivate and maintain. There was a saying that I used to use a lot, which is, “If you need to ask who owns something, it’s you (until proven otherwise).” We wanted to foster an environment where people were encouraged to step outside of their assigned roles and take ownership of tasks that both needed to be done and that they found interesting. We also wanted to prevent a work environment where people encounter a problem, and instead of stepping up and finding a solution, they push it off to the next person – which ultimately leads to no one taking responsibility and nothing getting done. Doubly true for the less fun but important things to be done, like spending the time to clarify a wiki page on an internal process.
As we grew, we stopped using this phrase as much because there were too many owners of things and people were often asking for purely informational reasons. However, I still strongly believe in this ethos and I think it’s enabled us to be successful and continue to be nimble in the face of growth. If someone finds they care enough about a problem to seek out the person responsible for resolving it, why not take the initiative and try to resolve it in the first place? Though we don’t say it as often, I still believe in a work environment where the default position to who owns a problem is “me.”
Jonathan Jackson is the CEO of Dimagi, a leading ICT4D company and makers of CommCare – the most widely adopted, technically advanced, evidence based mobile platform for low-resource settings. In his new blog series, “Dimagineering”, he shares his experiences while leading a social enterprise that values “Impact, Team Satisfaction, and Profit – in that order!” Follow Jon on Twitter @jonathanleej and learn more about Dimagi and CommCare at www.dimagi.com.