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  • Writer's pictureAlejandro Buriel Rocha

The Power of Orgnizational Culture: Psychological Safety

The Overture that ended abruptly in one of the largest monopolies.

Now that OpenAI and the ChatGPT are making a lot of people think that Google's monopoly on the Ads industry and search engines is about to finish, it is one of the best moments to talk about the reasons behind their success.

In the early 2000 some of the brightest minds in America were competing on a race. All trying to build a software engine that connected Internet user searches with targeted advertisements. All bets were on Overture, they had the winning algorithm, a pay-per-click advertising model, the code written by its founder Bill Gross a brilliant entrepreneur that was generating hundreds of millions of dollars in profits. Their recent IPO valued at one billion dollars. In a nutshell all bets were on the side of Overture because they possessed the intelligence, experience, and resources to win.

But overture did not win. The winner turned to be a small young company called Google. It's possible to isolate the moment that turned the race in its favor. On May 24, 2002 in Google's kitchen at Bayshore Parkway in Mountain View, California, Google founder Larry Page pinned a note to the wall. The note contained 3 words:


In the traditional business world, it was not normal to leave notes like this in the company kitchen. But obviously Google was not a normal company or a traditional business in any sense. His main leadership technique if we talk about Larry Page, was starting and sustaining big, energetic, no holds barred debates about how to build the best strategies, products, and ideas. To work at Google was to enter a giant, continuous wrestling match in which no person was considered above the fray.

On their all company Friday forums anyone could challenge the founders with any questions no matter how controversial, and vice versa.

So on May 24th, 2002 the competition with Overture was not going well. The AdWords engine as Google called this project, was struggling to accomplish the basic task of matching search terms to appropriate ads. A basic search for a Kawasaki H1B, returned adds for a lawyer assisted H-1B foreign visa application. The confusion of similar terms besides being funny, was very annoying and could push away clients forever. So Page printed out examples of these failures and pinned them in the kitchen board, next to the 3 words.

Jeff Dean was one of the last to see Page’s note. Dean had no reason to care about the AdWords problem. He worked in Search, a different area of the company, and he was very busy with his own urgent problems. But at some point that Friday afternoon, Dean walked over to the kitchen to make a coffee and spotted Page’s note. He flipped through the attached pages and as he did, a thought crossed his mind, a memory of a similar problem he’d encounter a while back.

Dean got back to his desk and start trying to fix the AdWords engine. He did not ask permission or tell anyone; he simply dove in. On almost every level, his decision made no sense. He was ignoring the mountain of work on his desk in order to wrestle with a difficult problem that no one expected him to take on. He could have quit at any point, and no one would have known. But he did not quit. In fact he came in on Saturday and worked on the AdWords problem for several hours. On Sunday night he had dinner with his family and put his two young children to bed. Around 9:00 PM he drove back to the office, made another coffee, and worked through the night. At 5:05 AM on Monday, he sent out an e-mail outlining a proposed fix. Then he drove home, and went to sleep. It worked Dean’s fix unlocked the problem, instantly boosting the engine’s accuracy scores by double digits.

On the strength of that improvement and subsequent others it inspired, AdWords swiftly came to dominate the pay-per click market. Overture’s effort, hamstrung by infighting and bureaucracy, faltered. In one year, Google’s profits went from $6 million to $99 million. By 2014, the AdWords engine was producing $160 million per day, and advertising was providing 90 percent of Google’s revenues. Overture started and was purchased by Yahoo and slowly disapeared into it.

The shocking part of the story is that Jeff Dean, was surprised to be asked about the AdWords engine as he barely remembered it, despite being the tipping point for Google’s long term monopoly in the ads-search world. This is due to Google's culture of collaboration, with personnel interacting and not worrying about status. This culture was created through proximity and face-to-face interaction, whole-group debates, no-holds-barred hockey games, Friday forums and short, direct bursts of communication.

Google was successful due to its culture, created through activities that promoted connection and belonging, compared to the Overture's bureaucracy and silos despite their huge resources.

Google didn’t win because it was smarter. It won because it was safer.

References: “The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups”. By Daniel Coyle.

If you want to know how to create Psychological Safety in your organizational culture, contact us!

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