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The cow brain scenario — How Google innovates and manages chaos

How an Eric Schmidt rule at Google lead to the discovery of how a cow brain is structured – and unveiled the power of letting employees pursue ideas.

Søren Vasø Hansen

Søren Vasø Hansen

Have you ever wondered how cows organize themselves on a field? It turns out they have snouts pointing north and tails south. Something called magnetic resonance inside the cow brain causes this behavior.

How do we know this? Because of Googles culture, that sparks creativity and innovation.

When Google released Maps, it gave researchers the first comprehensive view of cow herds across the globe. With this, the pattern was discovered, which lead researchers on a new trail to understand cow herds better — and ultimately gave insight into the cow brain.

Google Maps wasn’t precisely invented for the study of cow brains, but this uninspected use of it — among many — was still expected by former CEO, Eric Schmidt:

Learning about human behavior, and how people actually live and work, is, I think, always a shock. Humans are much more varied than you and I think they are. And most people don’t know it, or don’t pay attention to it.”

That goes for both your customers and your staff.

To truly innovate, you shouldn’t tell your people to innovate. Instead, provide the structure to come up with ideas, sparked from all the knowledge and diversity that are among your employees.

Eric Schmidt believes his job is to suppress management to free up creativity among everyone who has ideas they want to pursue. Otherwise, the cow brain scenarios of the world would never happen.

Google created a structure for innovation to happen.

One of the rules Eric Schmidt implemented at Google is that product leaders can use as many engineers as they want on a project, as long as they can convince them to join the team to solve their challenge. So now the product leader’s job is to make the challenge compelling enough to be realized.

That creates an intern validation system that prevents bad ideas to breathe.

Eric Schmidt also invented the famous 20% rule. Any Google employee can use 20% of their work-time to pursue any project they like. With it, a strong culture of innovation and purpose is being nurtured, but without the fear of resources being wasted.

As Eric claims:

While the rule says you can do anything you want to with your 20 percent time, these people are computer scientists and engineers, they’re not going to veer too far away from their core business — and that is the genius of 20% percent time.”

The 20% rule has led to many of Googles most innovative products: Maps, Gmail, Google News, AdSense and more.

However, when you let go and empower creative people to innovate and come up with new ideas on how to change your products and company, chaos will ensue.

That’s where great leaders like Eric Schmidt thrives. Such leaders know their role is not to suppress chaos. Instead, their role is to manage it. This skill is all about decision-making:

“The most important thing to do is to have quick decisions — and you’ll make some mistakes, but you need decision-making. We ultimately adopted a model of a staff meeting on Monday, a business meeting on Wednesday, and a product meeting on Friday, and this was organized so that people could travel in the right ways. And the agenda was, everybody knew which meeting the decisions were made at — and so as long as you could wait a week, you knew you would get a hearing on your deal.

I cannot tell you how many people have told me that at Google, decisions are made today quickly, in almost every case, even at our current scale. And that’s a legacy of that decision.”

The combination of freely born, bottom-up ideas and quick, top-down decision making is what has positioned Google as one of the worlds most innovative companies and have resulted in stable growth over the past 16 years.

Resources: Eric Schmidt on the Podcast Master Of Scale

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