Google CEO Sundar Pichai Tells Staff: ‘Productivity as a Whole Is Not Where It Needs to Be’

Profits tend to hide problems–until they don’t. Here’s why that matters for you.

Imagine your boss sums up your annual performance review by saying, “You need to eliminate all the distractions and focus on being a lot more productive.”

Would you walk out the door feeling like you were doing a good job? Feeling your job is secure?

Probably not.

That’s the situation now faced by everyone at Google. During an all-hands meeting last Wednesday, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said:

There are real concerns that our productivity as a whole is not where it needs to be for the head count we have.

[We need to] create a culture that is more mission-focused, more focused on our products, more customer-focused. We should think about how we can minimize distractions and really raise the bar on both product excellence and productivity.

Translated? Inflation is up. Revenue is down. We’re bloated.

And we’ve kind of lost our way. 

To combat the “economic headwinds” the company faces — net income for the past quarter fell by 13 percent because of “pullbacks in spend by some advertisers” and “lower (product) engagement levels” — Pichai introduced a “Simplicity Sprint” initiative designed to solicit productivity and efficiency ideas from Google’s 170,000-plus full-time employees. 

According to reports, the survey includes questions like:

  • Where should we remove speed bumps to get to better results faster?
  • How do we eliminate waste and stay entrepreneurial and focused as we grow?
  • What would help you work with greater clarity and efficiency to serve our users and customers?

Standard stuff. Good stuff. 

Also stuff most large companies have done, or will eventually do.

In the 1990s, when I worked for a Fortune 500 company (yes, I’m old), when demand dipped we embarked on a “Back to Basics” initiative designed to reduce waste, improve quality, improve productivity … basically the same as Pichai’s Simplicity Sprint goal of creating a Google culture “more mission-focused, more focused on our products, [and] more customer-focused.”

In Google’s case, search advertising was long considered better protected from economic issues than other online ad formats.

Search advertising was Google’s version of a Buffett moat. Search advertising was Google’s version of Amazon Web Services, generating revenue so massive — and efficiently produced — that it allowed the company to spend time and money exploring a wide variety of opportunities. 

And become less mission-focused, less product-focused, and less customer-focused.

That’s why most big companies eventually undertake their own version of a Simplicity Sprint or Back to Basics initiative. Hockey-stick revenue charts tend to hide issues that only become apparent when growth slows, and “nice to do” must give way to “need to do.” Eventually, most CEOs ask employees to, as Pichai has, work “with greater urgency” and “more hunger” than during “on sunnier days.”

Google is far from the first — or last — company to ask employees to buckle down, refocus, and, in the words of Stephen Covey, remember that “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

Your goal? Make sure you never stray from ensuring the main thing is the main thing.

That way you won’t have to go Back to Basics, or embark on a Simplicity Sprint.

Because those initiatives, however well-intentioned, rarely generate the kind of results you hope for.

And need.

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