‘Organizing in the Google Era’ – a review of Douglas Merrill’s book

Douglas Merrill, author of Getting Organized in the Google Era, has creds.  He has a PhD in cognitive science, he’s the former CIO at Google, the former President of EMI Music’s digital unit and current CEO & co-founder of ZestCash.com.  Equally important the approach he takes in his book is funny, funky and surprisingly tender (the latter as he shares his learnings from watching his partner pass away from cancer).

After seeing him speak I picked up a copy of his book and reviewed it.  I’ll share 4 X 4 of the top takeaways, including how to ski to Thailand.

So strap on your skis, as Douglas lets us in on the ‘crazy attic’ that is his brain.

He shares with us, that while knowledge may have been power in the past, now power is all about the sharing of knowledge.  And while the desire for work-life balance is very real, it doesn’t exist (don’t loose hope, he’s a fan of integration instead). Douglas bases his book on two key principles ~

A) The world is a mess when it comes to organization:

Most of how the world is structured is wrong for how our brains work and, to make matters worse, how our world is organized is based on outdated notions from the Industrial Revolution.  Our 9-5 Monday to Friday workweek evolved from assembly line workers and the need for standardization.

B) Our brains aren’t as mighty as we think they are:

We tend to make choices based on the fear of loosing something (versus a more wholehearted, analytical approach) and our brains are crappy at remembering (we forget most things before we even know it).

Depressed yet? Hang on, Douglas gives us hope.

Here are the first four main takeaways from his book, for how you can overcome oppressive, outdated organizational structures and work with how the brain works as opposed to against it.

1. Get stuff out of your head ASAP

Our brains can only hold 5-9 things in short term memory so get stuff out of your head and into a notebook, the cloud, an email etc.  Just get it out and down (written, emailed, noted etc).  Repeat after me… out and down … out and down.

Douglas tells an unverified story of a reporter, who after interviewing Einstein asks him for his phone number in case he needed to do follow-up.  Einstein goes to a phone booth (remember those?) and tears out his phone number from the directory, expressing surprise that the reporter would expect him to know his number when it was listed in the directory.

I’m not suggesting you forget your phone number but it is a great example of analyzing the flotsam and jetsam that’s floating around in our head and turfing what doesn’t need to be there.

Bonus tip: if you really need to remember something, Douglas says attach a story to it.  While our short-term memories are good at rote memory our long-term memories encode very differently, and that’s through the use of stories.  Stories are how we remember.


2. Organize around actual not assumed constraints

Douglas suggests we “uncover patterns of behavior that cause us to ‘get in our own way’”. He says to pay particular attention to what scares, stresses, frustrates and angers us.  I was so taken by this concept that I grabbed a sticky and made a list under each of those 4.

“If you don’t know what the problem is you can’t solve it” he says and then goes on to say we also need to figure out what we do and don’t have control over.  Insert favourite saying here: If you can’t fight and you can’t flee … flow (from As Above So Below).


3. Have clear goals

Clear goals are the flip side of constraints.  If you are really clear about your goals (and keep coming back to them to make sure you’re on track) things tend to flow from there.


4. Search

If you only keep in your head what you truly need then what do you do with the rest? “Don’t file information search for it,” are perhaps the wisest words in the book.  “Search sets us free from the clutter of our imperfect minds.” Amen and high five to that!


Point 4 is so impressive and has such potential to change the way we work that I’ll add the second set of 4 takeaways related directly to search in the next blog post.  Can’t wait?  Read them all here in the Rock.Paper.Scissors Inc. latest e-newsletter article.


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2 Responses to “‘Organizing in the Google Era’ – a review of Douglas Merrill’s book”

  1. Elaine Zimmermann Says:
    November 10th, 2011 at 6:39 am

    Douglas is brilliant

  2. Lee-Anne Ragan Says:
    November 12th, 2011 at 9:58 am

    I completely agree Elaine. Have you seen him speak? He’s as engaging in person as he is in his book.

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