Monday, 20 June 2011

Conscious Chaos

Inside Google’s phenomenal innovation machine

I’ve just been to Google’s HQ (the Googleplex) in Mountain View in sunny California.  Something struck me as odd and I couldn’t get it out of my head.  I’m not talking about the legendary benefits; food every 150 feet, laundry, valet parking – we all know that Google works hard to create a hard working environment.  I’m talking about the way large presentation rooms are set up.  Most companies have a few large meeting rooms for presentations, but they’re just that: big rooms – things with doors, places where you sit down and pay attention.  But at Google I saw presentation spaces you had to walk through to get somewhere else.  No way you can’t eavesdrop or dwell a while to hear what your fellow Googler is talking about.  A small observation but I think a massive clue as to how Google innovate.

Google take care of potentially huge and far out innovation by investing in new business or hiving off a few mega minds to work on special projects with Larry Page, one of the co-founders.  Nothing special about this so far, most organisations follow the same path for what they hope will be big impact and disruptive innovation.  What is fascinating at Google is how they inspire everyday innovation – and when I say ‘everyday’ I really mean it. Google launch on average 5 new products a week, each of which is reviewed by the founders at all staff meetings every Friday.

If you come from a non engineering, non technical, non US background like me it takes a bit of time to get your head around the context in which Googlers operate.  First there’s the California effect.  Right now an entrepreneurial wave of optimism is sweeping through the ‘valley’, it’s expected that you’ll have a few failures before you make it.  It’s a heady cocktail and there are plenty of role models to prove it.  Secondly there’s the ‘ninja geek’ environment at Google where you know you’re amongst the world’s smartest, where even the most junior Googler can input immediately into a new innovation and where ideas move very, very fast.  There are so many ideas firing in Google that even the senior management can’t track them all and if they could they’d probably see that as a sign of too few ideas.

Given this context Google have grown a seemingly chaotic incremental innovation system.  At its core are smart engineers bubbling with ideas that they’re encouraged to share and work on with their colleagues as part of their 20% free time.  This takes me back to those open presentation rooms - if you have an idea then you just get on and work on it, maybe with a colleague, then you share it as a prototype with whoever will listen.  The idea is to create ‘flocking’ – resource flows naturally to the most exciting ideas; “here – I wrote a chunk of code over night that I think could really help you”.  Note I said sharing ‘exciting’ ideas – not ‘on strategy’ or ‘consumer led’ ideas.  Next Googlers have to ‘eat their own dog food’ or ‘consume (play with) their own ideas’ and ultimately beta test where friends and family get to road test ideas. 

Google isn’t perfect, they have had their share of well publicised failures but many of their innovations which you’re probably going to use today have come out of this seemingly chaotic process.  They are highly data driven (apply for a job and expect to be quizzed on childhood exam grades), have separate teams assessing the monetisation of ideas and are tightly performance managed on 80% of their time.  There’s no escape for an ultimately poor performing idea and at this volume of ideas it’s genuinely possible to celebrate failure.  So chaotic yes, but not unconsciously so.

Is there anything for other organisations to learn from Google?  Take highly regulated and comparatively slow moving organisations like  pharma companies or financial service institutions – can they really adopt conscious chaos?  I think there are elements of Google’s model that are valid for innovators everywhere, here are my top five, good luck!

1.   Drop words like ‘incremental’.  It’s not a practical innovation management concept, no one can tell if a small idea will become big - instead ensure everyone knows they need to innovate and see what bubbles up.

2.   Create the maximum number of internal platforms on which someone can rant and rave about their unformed ideas.  Don't rely on internet idea schemes, face to face is where the passion is.

3.   If you’ve recruited smart people trust their judgement, too much consumer engagement early on will merely choke radical ideas as consumers struggle to articulate unmet needs.

4.   Leaders must demonstrate a love for the detail of new products, they have to lead from the front.  It’s pretty incredible that Larry and Sergei still run weekly Q&A’s on new products.

5.   Recognise that endless rounds of ‘presenting’ saps energy and slows everything down.  Instead create the ability to rapid prototype at the front end of your innovation process.  What if innovation leaders refused to discuss an idea until they have something in their hands to discuss?