Leadership Lessons from Google
Worldwide influence requires world-class intelligence.
The reason Google went from nobodies in an online world stuffed full of new ideas, through to dominant market leaders in five years and a globally recognised verb within ten years, is because their algorithm was better than everyone else’s. It wasn’t because they spent millions on advertising or got particularly high profile endorsements (when did you last see a TV ad for Google?), but because their search engine found a way of returning the results you wanted, rather than - as used to be the case with its competitors - a random smorgasbord of words and concepts vaguely related to what you typed in. The reason their algorithm was better than everyone else’s was because they figured out how to do something that nobody else had worked out how to do. And the reason they figured it out is because they were founded by, and then started recruiting, extremely intelligent people. To this day, they continue to hire the best and the brightest, paying them huge salaries, to keep ahead of the game. Being known and followed by everyone else is much easier if you’re cleverer than everyone else.
Personally, I think the significance of this, which is obviously not something that we needed Google to prove, is not always grasped by those seeking to reach people with the gospel. Make a list of Christian leaders in previous centuries whose influence touched the known world - Jesus, Paul, Justin Martyr, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Basil, Athanasius, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Edwards, Carey, Spurgeon, Barth, Bonhoeffer and so on - and you’ll notice that they were all extremely intelligent people (whether they had the equivalent of University degrees, as most of them did, or not). The speed at which information flows around the world today has made this even more important, because the known world is bigger, and the geographical constraints that applied to intellectual influence in previous generations have been virtually eliminated. Clearly, this does not for a moment imply that any moral or spiritual superiority is conferred by having a quick mind (and there are plenty of biblical texts that would seem to pull in the opposite direction!) It does imply, though, that global influence - which for better or worse is something that many churches and denominations aspire to - requires global thinkers. Ideas travel top-down, not bottom-up.
Media-saturated people find excessive branding quite annoying.
Remember what search engines and online portals looked like before Google? Remember AltaVista, Yahoo, HotBot, Lycos, Hotmail, AOL, and all those sites in the late nineties? They were the most cluttered, brand- and logo-filled, over-marketed spaces on planet earth, and they were incredibly irritating. The first time I saw Google’s anti-branded homepage, with just one word and one box on it, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Of course, their intelligence (see above) and understanding of how influence works (see below) meant that they didn’t really need “adverts”, in the traditional sense, so they could give us the clean homepage we always wanted and yet still have a revenue stream; it’s not obvious that such a thing would be possible, and Facebook still haven’t managed it, so kudos to Google for that, as well. What’s interesting, though, is that the anti-brand, anti-logo, anti-clutter approach is still fashionable, now that people have worked out how to do it - “less is more” has become axiomatic - and this presumably stems from the sheer volume of branded flannel that all of us encounter in a day. Anti-brands are on the rise, particularly when it comes to sub-brands (Search, Images, Maps, Mail, etc), and the proliferation of brands have become tiresome.
Except in the church, where the rush to brand things is as strong as ever. Church programmes and ministries, outside of the ultra-hip indie church communities who have realised how anachronistic this all is, are almost all branded differently - the kids work, the youth work, the old people’s work, the poor relief ministry, every conference, every new initiative - which leaves church websites and brochures (!) looking like AltaVista’s homepage circa 1997 (although the same few names always appear: ignite, reverb, inspire, radiant, catalyst, and so on). Church names themselves have become brands, encouraged no doubt by the ever increasing popularity of multisite; new churches, especially in the US, are encouraged to form networks (read: branded groups of churches), and then movements (read: denominations with better fonts). If I were feeling impish, I might suggest that the proliferation of new brands in Newfrontiers over the last two years is simply the reductio ad abspheredom of this delayed cultural trend - but I’m probably in enough trouble already. Suffice it to say that I think Google has something to teach us here as well.
Influence is not what most of us think it is.
The defining feature (as I understand it) of Google’s offering, and the reason that both of the above things are true, could be described as their redefinition of influence. It’s probably more complicated than this, but I’ve heard it explained as follows. When you typed a word into an old-style search engine, the sites that would appear at the top of the list would be the ones that had the most links on the internet. So if you were linked to a thousand times, you would appear above a site that was linked to twenty times. Sounds logical - but the sheer volume of mundane material out there, and the incentive for companies to fiddle the system, meant that you never found what you wanted. Google changed all that by thinking about influence differently. In their algorithm, it mattered less that you were linked to by lots of pages, and more that you were linked to by pages that were linked to by lots of pages. Some sites carry far more weight than others, so if you were linked to by twenty sites, but one of them was the BBC, you would appear higher in the list than someone linked to by a thousand random blogs and small company homepages. In other words, the way influence really works - through cultural gatekeepers and arbiters of credibility, rather than through a democratic popularity contest - was taken into account in the way the search engine functioned. Which is why these days, you almost always find what you’re looking for.
This is a really important idea, because it breaks the link between popularity and influence. Justin Bieber has 42 million (mostly teenage) followers on Twitter, but he may have far less influence on the culture as a whole than someone whom almost nobody has heard of with 10,000 followers, depending on who those 10,000 are. The same is true, of course, of theology; a book published by Brill that sells a thousand copies may well wield more influence, when considered a decade later, than a book published by Authentic that sells a million. It’s true of the resources we produce as churches (one academic paper or national newspaper article will be more influential than a raft of widely distributed paperback books and MP3 recordings). And it should also affect our evangelistic activity: God can save anyone, anywhere, but it is undeniably harder to for an individual to believe the gospel if the gatekeepers and arbiters of credibility in their culture - academics, high-end journalists, scriptwriters, highbrow comedians, feature writers - think it is incoherent. So engaging in apologetics and evangelism at the higher academic end, as well as at a more popular level, is vital in making it easier for everyone in the culture to respond to Jesus. (An important explanation of what responding to this might look like, from William Lane Craig, can be found here. This profile in the Chronicle of Higher Education is also worth a look, since it shows how Craig is evidently practising what he is preaching).
So I think Google, whether you love them for their search engine or hate them for shutting Google Reader, have a few things to teach us about intelligence, branding and influence. Any thoughts?