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A Simple Productivity Secret From Google's Early Days

The practice was so effective, it spread to scores of top Silicon Valley companies. Would it help your company, too?
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Silicon Valley companies pump out apps, gizmos, and assorted tech solutions that improve the lives and output of workers across the country. Less celebrated are these innovative companies’ contribution of powerful but low-tech productivity hacks to help managers and owners get more done in less time.

Individual CEOs have promoted ideas from No Meeting Wednesdays to getting rid of your desk entirely, while the Valley’s quirky management practices like paying employees not to check in on vacation and full disclosure about salaries have stirred debate far from top tech hubs.

But some of the most chattered-about ideas--such as 20 percent time and mind puzzle interview questions--have come from experiments at search behemoth Google.

The blog of startup iDoneThis recently shared another simple but powerful productivity hack from the company’s early days that, despite being less well known, has actually spread far further.

A Contagious Idea...

The idea is called Snippets. Walter Chen, co-founder of iDoneThis, explains what it’s all about: "During Google’s growth stage, Larry Schwimmer, an early software engineer, stumbled upon a solution deceptively simple, but one that persists to this day at Google and has spread throughout the Valley. In his system, called Snippets, employees receive a weekly email asking them to write down what they did last week and what they plan to do in the upcoming week. Replies get compiled in a public space and distributed automatically the following day by email."

Today, the process under different names has spread to other elite Silicon Valley companies such as Facebook, Square, and engineering firm Palantir. Why has something that seems so simple proved so popular with the area’s top companies? "The process forces employees to reflect and to jot out a forward-looking plan for getting stuff done, all while requiring a minimal disruption in the employee’s actual work," writes Chen, who adds that as employees can compose their Snippets on their own schedule, the practice is maker friendly, i.e., it doesn’t break up long blocks on concentrated work.

...But What a Hassle

The benefits of Snippets for management are clear, but don’t they just amount to a weekly administrative chore for frontline employees? Chen concedes that there are plenty of startup folks who complain about Snippets but insists that when pressed, most of the grumblers will agree that the process--despite being a minor inconvenience--beats alternative ways of monitoring staff and aligning progress.

Even those who find Snippets annoying "admit that they were their most productive when they closely tracked their Snippets and OKRs (objectives and key results) and that much of the autonomy and freedom that’s characteristic of top software engineering shops in the Valley could be attributed to Snippets doing its work of people management secretly, in silence," Chen concludes.

Would Snippets benefit your business the way they have benefited these top Silicon Valley companies?





IMAGE: Jeroen Mirck via Flickr
Last updated: May 27, 2014

JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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