In his book on innovation, “Robert’s Rules of Innovation II: The Art of Implementation“, Robert F. Brands, provides many examples of the practices that have led to cultures of innovation in a variety of different companies (see his book on Amazon.co.uk). One set of principles comes from Google, and as Brands states, these are all accessible to every company in the world.
“Google’s ‘recipe for driving innovation is no carefully guarded secret sauce. Rather, Google has openly shared this information with the public. In 2013, Google codified a new set of ‘Nine Principles of Innovation‘, which updated the version first unveiled by former Google executive Marissa Mayer in 2008.”
Google’s nine principles are indeed applicable to every company. And we can all apply them in our own work.
1. Innovation comes from anywhere. At Google, this principle emphasizes that innovation is in nobody’s job title, but is everyone’s responsibility. Moreover, ideas can come from anyone in the organization, regardless if they are top-level executives, employees who work in roles or departments not typically associated with innovation, or employees on the “bottom” of the company’s totem pole. For example, at Google it was their Google Health product manager who suggested that the company optimize information on suicide prevention hotlines whenever a related search was conducted. As a result of this innovative suggestion, Google’s search information results will automatically give a suggestion of where to call for help (i.e., the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and its free, 24/7 phone hotline) when a user makes a Google search seemingly focused on suicide.
A popular innovation myth is that innovation only happens within a company’s engineering and R&D departments. To the contrary, it is often the employees on the front lines who come up with the most innovative ideas. Professional expertise alone doesn’t lead to innovation and new product development; life experiences are just as valuable, if not more valuable to the innovation process. For example, AT&T’s exceptionally popular Drive Mode app (a mobile app that can be set-up to automatically send a customizable reply to incoming messages when the vehicle starts moving at 25 mph, in order to reduce a driver’s temptation to look away from the road at his or her incoming text messages) was the innovative brainchild of an AT&T call center employee who had been personally affected by the dangers of texting-while-driving.
2. Focus on the user. A long-standing Google principle is that the company encourages its employees to build products with the user, not profits, in mind. By doing this, Gopi Kallayil, Google’s Chief Evangelist for Brand Marketing, said “revenue issues take care of themselves.”
3. Think 10x, not 10 percent. This Google principle is about striving to improve something by a tenfold difference rather than just improving it by 10 percent. In other words, making a revolutionary change rather than an evolutionary change. This innovation driver comes from Google cofounder Larry Page’s preference for radical innovation over incremental innovation. At Google, this 10x principle is what drove revolutionary projects such as Project Loon, where Google used high-altitude balloons to bring Wi-Fi connections to remote areas.
Keep in mind that whereas this lofty think 10x principle may be appropriate for mega-companies such as Google, it’s not necessarily appropriate for all companies. Revolutionary innovation is a great thing to strive for, but it’s not the only successful type of innovation. As discussed in a previously published blog on this site, innovation doesn’t always have to be about reinventing the wheel, it can also be about simply improving the wheel. Incremental innovation—small-scale improvements that make a product better or more marketable—can drive successful, profitable innovation at your company. Also, incremental innovation—as opposed to revolutionary innovation and massive step-change innovation—makes the idea of innovation considerably less daunting and more accessible to a wider range of people.
Some examples of incremental innovation include Gillette’s razors, which began with just a single razor blade. As time passed, Gillette then incrementally innovated its razors by adding additional blades and different features that better met customer needs and improved the product. Another example of incremental innovation is Coca-Cola’s brand-line extensions such as Coke Zero and more recently, Coca-Cola Life.
Most companies stick with focusing on incremental innovation because it requires less risk and less investment. Especially when there is a proven track record of a company’s product working in the market, incremental innovation is the safe choice. However, keep in mind that many companies are potentially missing out on massive rewards because they refuse to innovate beyond incremental innovation.
4. Bet on technical insights. Every organization has its unique insights—and betting on these unique insights can lead to major innovation. It was Google—not the automotive industry—that came up with the idea of the self-driving car. Google was able to make this major innovation because they already had the unique insights and building blocks in place to engineer a self-driving car. Google was able to tie its various information assets (data gleaned from its existing Google Maps, Google Earth, and Street View cars programs) to create the all new product entity of the self-driving car.
At your business, think about whether your business has any unique insights or information assets that can be used and combined to innovate something new.
5. Ship and iterate. This innovation principle is the updated version of former Google executive Marissa Mayer’s 2008 “innovation, not instant perfection” innovation principle. “Ship and iterate” means to ship your products out to market early and often rather than waiting until they are absolutely perfect to take them to market. Your product’s users will help you “iterate” it by providing you with feedback to make the product better. Google first launched its Internet browser Chrome in 2008 and then every six weeks, launched improved versions of Chrome based on user feedback. “Today, using that approach, Chrome is the Number One browser in many countries,” said Gopi Kallayil, Google’s Chief Evangelist for Brand Marketing, “You may not have perfection in your product, but trust that your users will get back to you.”
This “ship and iterate” principle directly ties in with the “analysis paralysis” principle discussed in the innovation book Robert’s Rules of Innovation II: The Art of Implementation and in this previously published blog on this site. While careful analysis, reasoning, research, and due diligence are important parts of innovation in business and running a successful company, you must not let these actions turn into a crutch and ultimately an innovation assassin. In a quest for perfectionism, business leaders often stubbornly insist on revisiting over and over again things that have already been determined. This perfectionism makes it difficult for business leaders to actually “hatch the eggs” and ultimately can lead to missing out on significant market opportunities. To avoid analysis paralysis, you must create a culture of innovation in your business where there is freedom to fail and a lack of cultural self-consciousness surrounding failure.
6. Twenty percent time. Twenty percent time refers to Google’s long standing principle where employees are encouraged to spend 20 percent of their work time pursuing projects they are passionate about, even if these projects are outside the scope of their job description or the company’s core mission. If you give your employees this twenty percent time, Kallayil promises that “They will delight you with their creative thinking.”
At Google, the results of their “20 percent time” program include Google News, Google Alerts, and off-road Google Maps Street View. According to corporate folklore, a Google mechanical engineer was planning a trip to Spain but became frustrated when he couldn’t view a close-up view of his hotel in Spain on Google Maps Street View because the hotel was located on a road that was too narrow for the Google Street View car to enter. This prompted the engineer to innovate product improvements to Google Street View that helped widen its scope of coverage: he adapted the Street View camera to fit on specially-made Google bicycles, tricycles, and backpacks that would be able to enter places too narrow for the Google Street View car or enter tourist locations that ban cars from approaching the premises.
While your company may not be able to offer its employees Google’s “20 percent time”, it should strive to offer employees more freedom to choose projects that interest them and do what they love as well as more autonomy to experiment and make decisions.
7. Default to open. Back in 2008, it was Marissa Mayer’s original goal to promote innovation at Google by sharing information on Google’s intranet and facilitate collaboration among Google employees. Now, the updated version of this principle incorporates Google pulling ideas from the general public. As Kallayil said, “There are seven billion people…. The smartest people will always be outside Google. By defaulting to open, we’re tapping into the creativity outside of Google.”
Examples of Google “defaulting to open” include the company encouraging non-Google developers to create apps for its Android platform. After all, when Google created its Android platform, they did so with the knowledge that it would be impossible to hire all the best developers in the world and therefore would have to “default to open” to get the best apps developed for their platform.
8. Fail well. Google believes that there should be no negativity or stigma attached with failing. According to Kallayil, failure at Google is a “badge of honor.” Moreover, Kallayil said, “There is a belief in the company that if you don’t fail often enough, you’re not trying hard enough. Once we realize a product is not working out, we kill it, but the thing with products is they morph—we take all the best ideas and redeploy them.” For example, Google Plus—which is Google’s social networking platform—incorporates elements of failed Google products such as Google Buzz, Wave, Orkut, and OpenSocial.
9. Have a mission that matters. This new principle for Google is, according to Kallayil, “the most important one.” Kallayil says, “Everybody at Google has a very strong sense of mission and purpose. We seriously believe that the work we do has a huge impact on millions of people in a positive way.”
What is your company’s mission? Is everyone on the same page? Do your employees care about the mission?
See Robert F. Brand’s article on this topic at Huffington Post.