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Emulating Google? Why Startups Aren’t One-Structure-Fits-All

Google is known for its innovative culture, flat structure, and employee perks. Workers compete for jobs there, shutterstock-222999166and businesses strive to emulate its fresh techniques.

Other companies may provide benefits like health and dental, but Google takes its company culture one step further by paying people to analyze and determine the best employee experience.

What’s the optimal wait time in the lunch line? How should the lunchroom be set up to maximize conversation? How long should new moms take maternity leave? The Google team can tell you. It not only knows this data but uses it to create a workplace that can attract the best and brightest.

Google has also led the way in flattening the traditional hierarchical business structure.

Rather than layers of management, Google boasts a culture with a short chain of command, a broad span of control, and minimal bureaucracy. Its culture breeds happy employees, low turnover rates, and high productivity — a winning combination for any company.

Yet many businesses buy into the myth that developing a similar culture and structure will enable them to achieve the same magical success. However, what’s best for Google may not be best for you.

The Truth About Structure

According to a study conducted at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, some employees prefer a hierarchical structure because of the clarity it provides, finding it more stable and easier to understand than a more egalitarian structure. I’ve observed that to be true at SUM Innovation because accountants thrive on structure.

Here are three common disadvantages to a purely horizontal structure:

  1. Loss of control: A decentralized structure lends itself to team leaders answerable for results but with little control over the team. This imbalance of responsibility and authority can lead to finger-pointing and blame-placing.
  2. Lack of communication: Flatter organizations tend to have looser job descriptions. As a result, people both inside and outside the organization are often left to wonder who’s in charge. This can be problematic when the employee equipped to solve a customer’s problem is unnamed or out of reach.
  3. Culture confusion: When moving to a flatter structure, it’s easy to lose sight of the culture already in place. Not thinking through the implications of how change will affect relationships and workflow can create tension and stifle innovation. These obstacles can negatively affect even the people who wanted the structure. The key is to find the organizational structure that works for you and the group you lead.

The ‘Blue Ocean Strategy’

The business book “Blue Ocean Strategy” was key in the development of SUM Innovation. I was raised alongside the water, spent summers on the ocean or by the sea, and always wanted to be an adventurer, so the sailing image resonates with me.

The ocean represents something to admire in wonder but respect and fear at the same time. Running a business is often like being out to sea: The direction is clear, but sometimes land is out of sight. Well-captained, the adventure can be smooth sailing, but one mistake could sink the whole ship.

I see myself as the captain of my team’s boat: It’s my job to navigate passages safely, avoid the storm, and guide the ship to shore. But I also need to recognize the help and varied talents offered by my crew members because we must rely on one another.

I want the people at SUM Innovation to feel valued, to know their voices are heard, to see that their feedback is mission-critical, and to volunteer their insights. If they do (and I effectively listen), I can steer the ship in a direction that works for all of us.

This desire has led me to embrace the essence of the Google environment while creating a structure and culture that’s as unique as our organization itself.

Best of Both Worlds

We’ve operated in a flexible environment in which our teammates don’t feel obstructed by policies, practices, and procedures. Instead, they are part of the vision, their opinions matter, and there is purpose guiding the choices they make. We’ve designed a structure that allows their creativity and self-expression to thrive.

How can you claim the Google spirit while staying true to your company values? Here are a few practical habits we’ve found helpful:

  • Engage the “culture” conversation regularly.
  • Be open to feedback.
  • Design a kick-butt employee review process that also allows workers to evaluate the company’s performance.
  • Develop individual goals, and hold employees accountable.
  • Create a supportive environment that facilitates growth.
  • Have fun!

You may not have the resources to pay a full-time chef or offer the perfect lunchroom environment, but you can build a team full of active crew members who look forward to work each week. And that’s the truth.


About the author
Dancer-turned-accountant Mathew Heggem is CEO of SUM Innovation, a company that assesses, designs, implements, and manages accounting solutions for fast-growth startups, international businesses, established and growing businesses, and nonprofits across the U.S. Mathew is also the founder of the #SUMtech Summit and the #AccTech Cooperative meetup group in New York City, which explores the intersection between accounting, technology, and entrepreneurship. In his free time, he likes to take coding courses at General Assembly and is working toward becoming a Certified Feldenkrais Practitioner.

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