Whilst doing my daily trawl through the internet and Reddit pages, I came across a very interesting talk at the San Francisco Dreamforce Summit where Google’s Chief social evangelist, Gopi Kallayil talks about Googles 9 principles of innovation. Please do go and watch the video as it is a great insight to the inner workings of Google, but here are the 9 principles summarized here.
Innovation comes from anywhere
An idea for an innovation doesn’t have to just come from your super star employees. Ideas can come from anyone. There is a really good example that Kallayil mentions where an onsite doctor at Google had idea that if someone talks about suicide in a Google search that the first item in the search results should be the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. The call volume to the helpline went up 9% after that. This is a great example that an idea for an innovation, no matter how small, can have a big impact.
Due to the impact of this one small change, they have now rolled this type of change out across the world. In the screenshot above you can see where it shows the phone number of the Samaritans.
Focus on the user
Focus on the user and worry about the money later. When you focus on the user, all else will follow. Google improved the speed of its search capabilities with predictive analysis so that search suggestions come up after the user types a few keystrokes. This instant search saves the user a few microseconds with each entry. Thanks to the instant search, Google estimates the time saved is equivalent to giving back mankind 5,000 years after a year of collective use. “Create a great user experience and the revenue will take care of itself,” says Kallayil. In addition, more customers will be attracted to your product’s increased benefits.
This is relevant, no matter what industry you work in. If you have a website aimed at the general public, then focus on usability and makes your product as easy to use as possible. If your customers are business customers, then make your tools and processes as pain free as possible. If you are writing a tool for a call center and you make the tool really quick and easy to use, then you will help save money by reducing wasted effort.
Aim to be 10 times better
If you go to work thinking that you will improve things by ten percent, you will only see incremental change. If you want radical and revolutionary innovation you need to think of 10 times improvement, and that will force you to think outside the box. In 2004 Google started its Google Books project and set forth a challenge to organize all the world’s information and digitize all the books ever printed in history. This started off by Googles co-founder Larry Page building his own book scanner. The initial iteration was not very efficient and even required someone to manually turn the pages in time with the tick of metronome, but this innovation then led to further iterations and now Google has scanned over 30 million books.
Bet on technical insights
Every organisation has their own ways of solving problems and their own insights into their future systems architecture and design. It is these future looking insights that are worth betting on. It’s these insights that will lead to big innovations. Take Google for example, they are first and foremost a search and advertising company, but they have bet big on lots of different innovations, like Google Maps, Gmail, Google+, Google Glass and now even driver-less cars.
It pays to stick to your guns and follow through on your insights. At the organisation I work for at the time of writing, we bet on a completely different approach to doing web services that was very different for the company in the UK business. A lot of partners in business units in different companies didn’t see the value in what we were doing and thought we had over complicated the situation, but we belligerently followed through, and I am glad we did. We not enjoy a very stable, highly available services environment where we haven’t had a single failed deployment in nearly 2 years. My team fully engaged with the idea and now own it completely and have taken it further than originally intended as they have felt the benefits.
Ship and iterate
By shipping your product early, you can gauge opinions from your users and feed that back into the design process. This doesn’t mean you should release something of low quality though, you need to make sure what you deploy works well but it can have an initial basic feature set. Google did this with their Chrome browser. They released something basic and then put out a new version every 6 weeks.
I encourage my team to do something similar too. We are currently writing a new system for our call center and we first released a basic version with a small subset of functionality early to get the reactions from the users and then feed their comments back into the next versions.
Give employees 20 percent time
This is the one Google is most known for. They allow all their staff to spend 1 day a week working on their own ideas and pet projects. This is aimed at giving people the freedom to think and innovate away from their normal daily projects. This has spawned many great products at Google including Gmail. I wish more companies would allow this sort of thing. At the organisation I work for at the time of writing, we try to work core hours, where 4 hours a day you focus completely on your project work with email and phones turned off. Outside this time developers are free to pick up other work including support or work on innovative ideas. This isn’t as flexible as the Google 20% idea, but it is better than nothing. If you spend a complete day working on your ideas then you can really focus get into the zone. Having a few hours a day at the beginning and end of your working makes context switching a lot harder.
Default to open process
Try to make your development processes open to all users by tapping into the collective energy of the user base to obtain great ideas. When Google created the Android platform, it knew it couldn’t hire all the best developers on the planet. By opening up the code and providing an extensible app platform they encouraged developers across the globe to contribute to the android platform. “That is how an ecosystem is formed,” says Kallayil in the video.
Failing at something should not be feared. In fact failure and the lessons taken from failure should be worn as a badge of honor. At Google, if a product fails to reach its true potential, they axe it and take its best features to put into other products. When entrepreneurs are looking at starting a company, they will regularly try ideas (especially if they are following the Lean Start-up Principles), and if an idea doesn’t work out, they will quickly pivot to another idea. There is nothing wrong with this. If you never fail at anything, you will never learn.
Have a mission that matters
“This is the most important principle,” Kallayil says. “Everyone at Google has a strong sense of mission and purpose. We believe the work we do has impact on millions of people in a positive way.” Each person should have his or her own story. It is very important that your company has a very distinct missions that everyone can follow. You can even follow this up by having a departmental mission and vision statement that follows on from the companies overarching mission. I will write another article soon that talks about vision and mission statements for software development departments.
I really like it when spokesmen from different companies give an insight as to how their companies operate. These 9 principles are definitely ideas that any company can try to follow, even if you can only do a few of them, they should help to create a productive culture of innovation.