When I joined Google in 2010, I was shocked to learn that every secret project the company was working on, every strategy, almost every plan — except for regulatory-troublesome things like financial results — was open for me, and every other full-time employee to see.
Initially, I thought this openness was an insane policy. How could 10,000-odd employees be trusted with these secrets? Weren’t we worried about leaks? Yes we were. However, we were more worried about collaboration. Google’s openness about (almost) everything enabled Googlers to contribute to other teams’ work, often introducing valuable perspectives that the original team members were too heads-down to notice. It also served as a nice check against doing anything sneaky, such as blaming some other team for your schedule that slipped.
With great knowledge, however, comes great responsibility. Employees caught leaking internal information were summarily dismissed. During my 5 years at the company, this happened only a handful of times. The open approach made it possible for everyone to help each other, supply full debriefings to rank and file employees, which, in turn helped them carry out their missions. It often led to great, unexpected contributions.
I’ve always been impressed with the Google open system. Recently, the notion struck me that it’s nothing but a new twist on a very old lesson, learned by our friends, the ancient Romans. Without going into too much detail about the rise and subsequent fall of their mighty empire, I want to point out one lesson they learned, which is vital for any modern organization: external walls are superior to internal ones.
To illustrate this, allow me to draw you two schematic maps of the Roman world:
On the left, we have the state of things as they were in the golden days of expansion and prosperity. The bad barbarians who wanted to pillage were kept at bay by a sometimes physical, and more often, metaphorical wall on the external border of the empire, guarded by many armed legions. If you were a citizen living in Italy or Spain, say, you didn’t need to worry much about marauding barbarians ransacking your town. They would seldom penetrate the border. So around your town, there was no wall.
On the right, we see things as they were from the late 3rd century CE onwards. The empire was weakening, and there weren’t enough legions to effectively man the external ‘wall’. Frequent civil wars meant fewer legions left to fight barbarians across a long border. So your little town in Italy was exposed and frequently some northerner came and burned your vineyard.
The solution turned out to be building city walls around each and every city worthy of the name. Around the year 270 AD, a great yet underrated emperor called Aurelian had them built. This meant that the barbarians who made it in would simply starve, whilst trying to lay siege to the nearest city. This single architectural move did much to keep the empire going in the west for another two centuries, and in the east, another millennium.
But if you take the very long term view, it was a mistake.
Great organizations should keep their walls external. At Google, I got to witness a dubious novelty: One morning, the doors to the Google+ team building where I worked were programmed to open only to employees on a specific whitelist i.e. those who worked on Google+. No one else could enter the building. This was a very big deal. Since it was founded, employee cards at Google had been programmed to open every door in every office worldwide. For the first time, globally, Google chose to erect an internal wall. Why?
The answer, in a nutshell, is that the founders and stewards of Google decided to do what Aurelian did, albeit in a limited way. They chose to build an internal wall around Google+ because, for the very first time, they didn’t trust the great big external wall any longer. The circle of trust was breached. Afterward, Google also established such silos around other secret projects such as Helpouts.
History teaches us that a moment like this may be the beginning of the — possibly very far off in the future — end. Once people on the inside start hiding information in silos, when they stop cooperating and trusting each other, the performance of the organization as a whole suffers in response to the perceived mistrust.
We all favor, and aim for, maximum transparency but naturally some things must be kept secret. Therefore, I think the right approach is that with the exception of confidential personal employee information, and perhaps one or two other items, every organization should strive to erect only one very robust external wall around itself and keep everyone on the inside openly communicating with each other. A good practice here is to make it very clear to all employees that:
- By default, all company information is company-confidential unless explicitly and deliberately made public.
- They should trust all their coworkers to abide by #1, and share information with them fully and often.
- If #1 is breached, throw out the perpetrator but do not stop the open ethos by building internal walls.
We practice this principle at Aleph, which is much easier given how small and tight-knit the organization is, and intends to remain. When I joined it felt like the old Google I knew, and not the suspicion-laden perception I had of small VC funds where partners might hide information from employees and each other. The greater difficulty, for founders like the ones Aleph supports who undertake it, is to build a company meant to scale to a massive size, and yet resist the urge for as long as possible, and as much as possible, to give up on the external wall and start building those pesky internal ones. Because once you erect those internal walls, know that you just started the countdown to decline.
We are standing on guard at Aleph to make sure we stay open. To help us do that, our “old-new” office on Rothschild, which is currently under construction, will have no internal walls. See you there!
To learn more about the Roman history mentioned in this post, we recommend listening to Mike Duncan’s History of Rome. Episodes 119–120 cover the relevant period.