Collective Genius

Linda A. Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove, and Kent Lineback in HBR Review: “Google’s astonishing success in its first decade now seems to have been almost inevitable. But step inside its systems infrastructure group, and you quickly learn otherwise. The company’s meteoric growth depended in large part on its ability to innovate and scale up its infrastructure at an unprecedented pace. Bill Coughran, as a senior vice president of engineering, led the group from 2003 to 2011. His 1,000-person organization built Google’s “engine room,” the systems and equipment that allow us all to use Google and its many services 24/7. “We were doing work that no one else in the world was doing,” he says. “So when a problem happened, we couldn’t just go out and buy a solution. We had to create it.”
Coughran joined Google in 2003, just five years after its founding. By then it had already reinvented the way it handled web search and data storage multiple times. His group was using Google File System (GFS) to store the massive amount of data required to support Google searches. Given Google’s ferocious appetite for growth, Coughran knew that GFS—once a groundbreaking innovation—would have to be replaced within a couple of years. The number of searches was growing dramatically, and Google was adding Gmail and other applications that needed not just more storage but storage of a kind different from what GFS had been optimized to handle.
Building the next-generation system—and the next one, and the one after that—was the job of the systems infrastructure group. It had to create the new engine room, in-house, while simultaneously refining the current one. Because this was Coughran’s top priority—and given that he had led the storied Bell Labs and had a PhD in computer science from Stanford and degrees in mathematics from Caltech—one might expect that he would first focus on developing a technical solution for Google’s storage problems and then lead his group through its implementation.
But that’s not how Coughran proceeded. To him, there was a bigger problem, a perennial challenge that many leaders inevitably come to contemplate: How do I build an organization capable of innovating continually over time? Coughran knew that the role of a leader of innovation is not to set a vision and motivate others to follow it. It’s to create a community that is willing and able to generate new ideas…”