When the market closed last night, Google Inc. reported its first-quarter financial results under the new management of Google co-founder and reinstated CEO, Larry Page. Page may be 12 years more experienced, but he is no less revolutionary. Not only is he pioneering a new ideal of an entrepreneur king, but he could very well end up changing the business paradigm in the process.
In the past decade, we’ve experienced the success of decentralized organizations, most poignantly explained by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom’s book, “The Starfish and the Spider”: Without its head, a spider dies. Without its limbs, a starfish regenerates or even replicates. Starfish-like organizations disrupt spider-like institutions because they are virtually indestructible (think Napster), whereas spiderlike institutions die if their hierarchy is disrupted (think Enron).
These days, both public and private institutions are scrambling to harness the power of decentralization. Even the U.S. Army is experimenting with more autonomous units that can function independently should they be severed from central command. This raises the question: Can a centralized system be decentralized? What about the other way around?
If anyone can reconcile this looming paradox, Larry Page can.
Traditional businesses operate in a vast bureaucracy, with executives at the top, managers in the middle and employees on the bottom.
Larry Page means to destroy the steps in between.
At 24,000 employees and counting, Page is trying to cut through the massive bureaucracy by letting the managers go. This way, the entrepreneurial visions of engineers will not be mired by the scrutiny of general managers at every single step.
The success of this strategy has been proven by both Apple and Amazon, which allow their acquisitions to act independently. They facilitate, rather than micromanage, ideas.
Page will push this model further.
Whereas Apple and Amazon only forgo middle management for new acquisitions, Page intends to dissolve management entirely. Bureaucracy may have been the mainstay of centralized systems in the past, but Page will prove that a decentralized system can be made accountable to a single person.
Although units are free to innovate with the decentralized chaos of startup environments, they must all ultimately report back directly to Page. Google acquisitions Android and YouTube already operate under this model, and their success attests to its feasibility on a company-wide level.
Furthermore, Page’s immense interest in the micro-levels of his company can be evidenced by the fact that he has personally vetted over 30,000 employees for the 24,000-strong company. After assuming the role of CEO, he has requested that all projects be pitched to him via email, in a move to speed up decision-making. It may seem dangerously centered on one individual, but if his acumen in the acquisition of Android is any indication of his foresight, there is no reason to distrust Page as a sole arbiter.
The private sector is perhaps the only place in which an anachronistic ideal of the benevolent monarch can exist without condemnation by an allergic Western liberalism. Is that a scary thought? But Page, in many ways, is like the ideal, enlightened monarch that presides over an ideal kingdom of enlightened citizens. He’s even rid himself of the democracy of managers in order to be more efficient and precise as the ultimate appraiser of the accomplishments of his subjects.
As a monarch, he’s as absolute as they come. In fact, the kingdom that he’s cultivated could once only exist in the fantasy worlds of the best monarchs.
His kingdom has already gained a reputation for greatness, so citizenship is coveted and the standard is high. Each of his citizens was hand-selected for their potential and productivity. Subsequently, the less he interferes with their natural predilections, the more his kingdom will flourish. Should a member of the kingdom become a liability, then the monarch, or his fellow citizens, can expel him. After all, he doesn’t have a right to a job, unless he’s unionized.
Page is, perhaps, closest to an ideal that is described by the Chinese philosopher Han Fei. In the third century B.C., he wrote, “[The monarch] causes the worthy to display their talents, and he employs them accordingly; hence his own worth never comes to an end.” The ideal monarch achieves success by encouraging ideas instead of enforcing them.
With his reinstatement, Larry Page joins a novel archetype — let’s call them entrepreneur kings — they are the reigning champions of a new business paradigm that already counts Steve Jobs of Apple and Jeff Bezos of Amazon among its illustrious rank.
To return to the analogy from Brafman and Beckstrom, the ideal monarch is like a spider that presides over an ideal kingdom of many starfish. Even if Page fails, the starfish will survive, for the spider has freed — and thus protected — each starfish as it develops and maximizes its potential.
That said, if we can divine the future from the experience of the past, Page will not fail.