In its never-ending pursuit to find new and different ways to organise and provide access to information – many of which are successful and some of which are not so successful – Google has cultivated a culture for innovation. The company’s chief technology advocate, Michael Jones, who was chief technologist for Google Earth, Maps and Local Search, shares his experience on creating an innovative organisation.
CIOs know all too well about the importance of innovation and their role in being change agents in an organisation. However, innovation doesn’t just happen on its own. Jones says it takes being observant and responsive to problems and being discontented with the ways things are.
“You need to be unhappy about the world or unhappy about some problem to innovate, usually. It’s not about making good things better, it’s about being frustrated about something and then overcoming that,” Jones says.
“One of the requirements for innovation is an organisation that really confronts the problems where everybody looks at what is not going right. It’s very easy in an organisation to focus on what works, but you also need to focus on what doesn’t work. By learning what doesn’t work, then you see where the problems are that need to be solved.
“The innovation I’m concerned about is the kind that would imagine a whole new direction that’s not findable having executives task people with improving existing problems. You’ve got to look for answers to new questions, not the old questions.”
Being analytical and data-driven are key to becoming more observant of the problems that are not so obvious in an organisation and identifying new needs, Jones says.
“One way is to have people analyse before, during and after. That is, to become a statistics and data-driven organisation,” he says.
“We do not allow, for example, meetings where people say, ‘I think we should do this’. People have to say, ‘I’ve measured this and customers prefer this type face versus that type face 3:2’. We tend to not respect people for arguing their opinions but we do respect them for arguing their data. We do a lot of research and a tremendous amount of experiments and we argue and debate internally based on the results from those experiments.”
Jones says organisations need to reverse the ‘top-down’ approach to managing a new problem and involve those who deal directly with the problem in thinking of and deciding on solutions.
“It’s important for organisations not to become top-heavy in terms of management and authority,” he says.
“An innovative organisation tends to push decisions as low [as possible] in an organisation where they can be logically decided. It empowers people who are new, who are young and who are going to make first time mistakes. But by doing that it gets all of their new, clever insights instead of relying on the one insight from the one person at the top.”
When it comes to trying out new solutions, Jones says fear of failure is one of the biggest deterrents of innovation. He says companies that condemn their workers whose ideas are tested and don’t go according to plan are sabotaging their opportunity to become more competitive.
“They have created a punishment system in their company that [doesn’t] reward people for trying to be innovative. If you punish them as soon as they fail then all you’ll have will be a workforce that learns never to try new things because you’re going to punish them if it doesn’t work out. A lot of companies are in that position.”
For innovation to take place, Jones says CIOs and business executives need to create a company culture where workers can feel safe to test their new ideas, where they will have the support from their leaders. For example, Google created its famous ‘20 per cent’ program for workers to spend one-fifth of their working hours on developing and testing a project of their own.
“We are very open to what we call 20 per cent time, allowing employees to work on their own projects. The projects that come out of that, for example, would be Google Mail and Google News. They were products that weren’t what the company thought of making, they were products that employees thought of making. They made them in their spare time and the company got behind that to release it to the world.”
Including all workers in decisions on new ideas, not only business executives, is important in better determining how successful an idea will be once it reaches market. New projects at Google are piloted by employees within the company’s private Gmail laboratories where users’ feedback and popularity are used to select products for further development and release.
“We don’t have a big committee of executives to decide whether Gmail should have undo for sending [emails] or attachment monitoring – Gmail users decide that,” he says.
“The ones that are pretty popular with Google employees are the ones that customers try. We don’t put a total on that, but it makes us feel better about an idea that if in a group of 30,000 employees we can find some who like it. It’s about how popular it is with the employees, it’s not about how it is popular with the executives in charge of deciding what to launch. It’s not very personal like that.”
Innovation has to be embedded into the mindset and culture of workers and continually be a part of their work activity, rather than having a one-off program, Jones says. “It’s not so much that you want to have an innovation week in the company or an innovation program in the company; you just want an innovative company. So it needs to be an intrinsic feature of the company.”
Investing in innovation means investing in people, Jones says, not in “paperwork or a mechanism” that could potentially hamper the free, unstructured nature of discovering new ideas. “It’s not an army of people marching to some corporate drum. It’s a loose affiliation of individuals trying out their own ideas.”
However, having an ‘unstructured’ approach to innovation can lead to inefficiencies, Jones warns, but it’s still an effective way of making discoveries. “It’s got some big downsides. It’s not very efficient because people may do things twice, or get mad because [they might say], ‘My thing is like your thing’. It’s not without its problems but it’s a way to organise for innovation, it’s a way to discover the unknown.
“This unstructured play, if you want to think of it that way, is so powerful at coming up with new solutions to new problems. That’s what you get in exchange for efficiency with the old problems; you get new solutions to new problems that are more valuable.”
Societal change and the economic environment also play a part in innovation, Jones says. When there is an important change in government policy or the economy, this can influence organisations to innovate. He says ‘boom times’ are obviously good for innovation, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be a positive change that can bring out new inventions – for example, war can bring about the development of new defence technologies and security systems.
With Australia experiencing a carbon tax for the first time ever, Jones says this can be an example of how government policy can result in more innovation in green and energy efficient technologies.
“The externality of the carbon tax is now incorporated into the pricing models that businesses have to face. Therefore, improving that [and making] some new system for capturing pollutants or avoiding it in the first place is going to have an economic value that wasn’t perceived before. So innovation in that area is now valuable.”
CIOs and business executives need to ensure their policies around innovation are not too rigid and allow for some risk taking in order to discover and develop new ideas. Jones has a ‘bold’ approach to innovation where he believes not knowing the result of a change is how innovation can happen. It’s something CIOs might find themselves being cautious about, but he says it’s what can keep businesses ahead of the competition.
“To be innovative, what you need to do is to try things that you aren’t sure will work, to try things that could work. If they did work they would transform your business, and if they didn’t work you could afford the failure. That’s the secret of innovation; to try things before you are certain that they will work.
“Every organisation has innovation in its people. The question is not somehow making them be innovative or inventors, it’s making a company listen to their innovation. It’s not a problem of creative people; it’s a problem of creating stifling leadership policies.”