innovation lab

Google Innovation Case Study

Interview Participants

Mike Capsambelis, Google Project Manager

Background

At Google, Mike’s objective is to harness the world's information to assist people around the world with the things they do everyday. Mike has worked on several Google teams, including Social Impact, Shopping, Product Reviews, and Ads. Mike is also an active member of Google’s Community Outreach team, which works to connect nonprofits, community development organizations, startups, and entrepreneurs with the resources to accomplish their goals and make an even bigger impact.

 

Outside Mike’s Google day job, he is committed to accelerating economic and community improvement through innovation and entrepreneurship. This means extending to ALL small businesses, nonprofits, and entrepreneurs those opportunities that propel our most successful startups - and equipping them with the resources to grow, thrive, and compete in the current economy. This also means experimenting with new models, teaming with unconventional partners, and overcoming assumptions about the “way things are done.” Mike is the founder of Awesome Pittsburgh (awesomepgh.com) which awards $1000 grants to people and organizations with the best ideas for making the Pittsburgh region stand out in the global economy, for connecting our communities, for celebrating art or technology, for making the community a better place to live, work, and play, or for simply surprising and delighting fellow Pittsburghers.

 

1. Leadership

 

  • Leaders Set Google’s Strategic Goals and Let Innovation Follow – Leadership’s approach at Google is to set out broad strategic goals, then step back to let employees innovate to achieve them. Setting the right challenges for employees to focus on is an important leadership role that is instrumental in creating and sustaining Google’s innovation culture.

  • Use ‘Objectives and Key Results’ (OKRs) Planning Tool – Google finds that OKRs are a practical project management method (also used by other technology companies including Uber, Twitter, and LinkedIn) for defining and tracking work objectives and their outcomes. OKRs are an anchor for promoting innovative thinking. OKR planning ensures company, team and personal direction are constantly aligned and can be tracked, thus helping people move together in the right direction. OKRs are kept public in front of everyone so that teams move in one direction and know what others are focusing on. Many tech companies, including Google suggest that employees should achieve about 70 percent of their OKRs each quarter.

  • Leadership Must Show Follow Through – When employees develop ideas for how to solve challenges, leaders must acknowledge and act on the ideas to ensure they are implemented. Employees will lose interest quickly if no action results from their proposals for innovation. In general, the innovation culture at Google is thrives in part because managers and leaders learn to say “yes, and …” to their teams rather than “no” or “but.” This response to new ideas encourages employees to keep bringing new ideas forward and helps them fine tune ideas to best meet challenges.

 

2. Empowerment

 

  • Problem Solving Mindset Favored – Unsurprisingly, Google is a workplace where a problem solving mindset is highly prized. Groups of employees typically work in small teams on well-defined problems and organizational hierarchy takes a back seat to the ability to problem solve.

  • Think 10x – According to the G-Suite article on ‘Creating a Culture of Innovation at Google’ the notion of “10x thinking” is at the heart of how innovation happens at Google. 10x means true innovation happens when you try to improve something by 10 times rather than by 10%. The article describes, as an example, Google’s self-driving car project, which started with a blank sheet of paper and asked: “What if it could be easier and safer for everyone to get around?” A 10x goal forces you to rethink an idea entirely. It pushes you beyond existing models and forces you to totally reimagine how to approach it.

  • Innovation is not Dictated – Innovation cannot be achieved simply by following formulaic steps, such as a ‘tech’ style office space design. It is about switching employees’ mindsets from “tell us what we should do” to “let us figure out how to solve the problems our company faces.” Any effort to introduce an innovation culture runs the risk of mimicking, but not creating a culture. Large organizations often struggle with how to empower employees.

  • Test Ideas and Fail Fast – A successful innovation culture is one in which employees not only continuously generate ideas, but are able to test them fast. This means they must set parameters on how to judge success and be ready to move on if ideas don’t meet expectations. Setting and reviewing OKRs quarterly helps employees establish a routine procedure for this process of testing and failing or succeeding fast. In her ‘Eight Pillars of Innovation,’ Susan Wojcicki – CEO of Google’s YouTube says “It’s okay to fail as long as you learn from your mistakes and correct them fast. Knowing that it’s okay to fail can free you up to take risks. And the tech industry is so dynamic that the moment you stop taking risks is the moment you get left behind.”

  • Use Iterative Innovation to Manage Risk – Throughout Google’s history, the company has followed a philosophy of making its new products “beta launches” then making rapid iterations as users describe what they want more (and less) of. Today, Google continues to listen carefully to user feedback after each launch and revise products based on feedback. The beauty of this approach, according to Google, is that you get real-world user feedback and never get too far from what the market wants. Perhaps they want the features you were planning to add next ... or maybe something completely different.

 

3. Recognize & Reward

 

  • Tie Promotion to Innovation – At Google, successful innovation is a major driver for employee promotions.  It is the innovators who move up at Google and this provides a strong motivation for employees to innovate as a way to boost their career trajectory.

 

4. Measurement

 

  • Always Measure – At Google, measures are the basis for determining the success of an idea, but the measures are not prescriptive; in some instances an idea’s impact may be measured in terms of profit, in others it may be in terms of customer satisfaction, or user adoption rates.


2 https://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/articles/8-pillars-of-innovation.html