What Small Business Can Learn From Google

A sign is displayed outside of the Google headquarters in Mountain View, California.
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A sign is displayed outside of the Google headquarters in Mountain View, California.

When I talk to people about Google and its organizational culture, they are equally fascinated and hopeless, believing that the magic behind Google lies in the deep revenue streams that make it possible to feed its employees three meals a day. Small businesses, especially, tend to dismiss Google as a wholly unattainable model for running a business.

However, I learned core lessons at Google that transformed the way that I think about problem solving and strategic thinking. There were a set of statements that I heard early and often, which guided decision-making at every level of the organization. These mantras are at the core of innovation for Google, but translate readily to any business to create agility, employee engagement, and ultimately, stronger business results. Google's success owes far more to these mantras than the food in the cafes, and even better, they cost no money to implement.

1. Launch and iterate. Even the smartest of the hyper-educated Google leaders cannot predict which products and features will attract a sizable user base. Instead, they urge teams to launch quickly and iterate based on what they learn from their users. Rather than spending time perfecting a product that might not work, get it out there, and let the feedback guide future development.

For a small business, this means trying out a lot of services, products, marketing, sales, and other tactics in really small ways, gauging the success, and then building on the ideas that work in reality. Resist the urge to perfect — if your customers understand that you truly want their feedback to shape products and services, they will enthusiastically share their opinions.

2. Fail fast. If you try a lot of stuff by launching early and iterating, you'll fail at most attempts. This is the secret to innovation. Failure is not a bad thing, but slow failure in the market is. Launch, iterate, and declare the failures as quickly as you can. Most importantly, learn from those failures to help guide future efforts.

I recommend doing a weekly retrospective for your operations, lasting no more than 30 minutes. Ask your teams to answer three simple questions: What worked well? What did we learn? What can we do differently? Then, pick the one change that will make the most difference and put it in to play.

3. Focus on the user. Your customers or users should be your singular focus, always. A question I ask incessantly to maintain this focus is: "What problem are we trying to solve for our customers?" Every product or service must be linked to a problem or challenge that will make their lives easier.

4. Ask forgiveness, not permission. This mantra was important to mobilize every Google employee in the company to do the things they felt were right without worrying about what approvals they needed to do it. The idea is to remove barriers and to empower employees to act quickly.

Reward employees for taking initiative, and treat their missteps as any other failure — something to learn from, but not to dwell on. What is most important is they become stewards of your company to make the best decisions without seeking one hundred approvals to do so.

5. If you see a void, fill it. This is my favorite lesson from Google. It gives explicit permission to employees and the expectation that, if something is broken, everyone is empowered and responsible to fix it. If there is a spill in the kitchen, clean it up. If the copy machine is broken, file a ticket. And if you see a void in the market for an application you believe users will love, then build it.

This creates an environment in which every employee is 100 percent responsible for making your company better every day in little (or big) ways.

Put together, these five mantras create a responsible organization fiercely devoted to making the lives of customers better, one tiny step at a time. Free bagels are optional.

Julie Clow is the author of "The Work Revolution: Freedom and Excellence for All," (Wiley, 2012) She joined Google in 2006 and spent five years there leading team effectiveness, leadership, management, and organizational culture initiatives.