Google Gets Serious about Innovation

Yeah, that’s funny to say, isn’t it? Google is getting serious about innovating. “Serious” as in determined not to miss out out good opportunities. From the Wall Street Journal last week:

Google has recently started internal “innovation reviews,” formal meetings where executives present product ideas bubbling up through their divisions to Eric Schmidt, Larry Page, Sergey Brin and other top executives.

“We were concerned that some of the biggest ideas were getting squashed,” said Schmidt.

Google Searches for Ways to Keep Big Ideas at Home, Wall Street Journal, June 18, 2009

BW 2009 Top 3 innovative companiesGoogle is renowned for its innovation chops. The company consistently ranks among the Top 2 most innovative companies in Business Week’s annual survey. It’s not surprising. The ability of engineers to devote 20% of their work time to any side project of their choosing is one of the strongest statements about the importance of innovation in the world (the new United States CTO recently praised it). Google has instilled innovation into its corporate DNA.

So when the company says it’s missing out on good ideas, this is both surprising, and perhaps somewhat expected. Surprising, because how does a company consistently ranked at the top of innovation surveys miss good ideas? Expected, because Google now employs 20,000. With that many people, how does a company stay on top of all those ideas?

What I’m seeing is a company that is is progressively systematizing its innovation practice. Google is following the path of its large enterprise brethren, adapting its internal processes to account for its size and its need to grow across multiple fronts. It really has to. It’s no longer the small company where ideas get tossed around on a white board, and everyone knows what’s going on. I mean, there are 20,000 people employed there.

Google is getting serious about innovation.

A Google’s Innovation Management Scorecard

The scorecard below is a simple one, which I’ll freely confess is based on what I’ve read about Google’s innovation. I don’t work there, but the assessment feels about right. See if you agree:

Google innovation scorecard

These are five elements of an innovation program, highly focused on the front end of innovation.

Strategic innovation focus areas: I rated the “strategic innovation focus areas” as average, because it’s not clear exactly what Google’s focus areas are. Google employees might dispute that assertion. But it’s also true that Googlers treasure the ability to work on off-topic, seemingly stupid ideas.

Employee ideas encouraged: Well, yeah! 20% time.

Visibility into ideas generated: I also rated “visibility into ideas generated” as average. Really, this rating is based on the Wall Street Journal article. It sounds like executives weren’t able to see all the good ideas they wanted to. I will note, that this Googler said:

In order for 20% time to work, anyone must be able to see what is out there

I’ll characterize “must be able to see it” as a wiki-like philosophy of easy accessibility. It also may have a local orientation, where you tell your colleagues to go look at your code. Making it easy to see the ideas and let the best one surface is a different issue. This becomes harder as companies get bigger. Eric Schmidt and Hal Varian wrote about the challenges growth brings:

A final issue is making sure that as Google grows, communication procedures keep pace with our increasing scale. The Friday meetings are great for the Mountain View team, but Google is now a global organization.

Select the best ideas: Go back to Eric Schmidt’s statement in the WSJ article. The biggest ideas were getting “squashed”. It may also be hard to define what exactly “the best” means. With a broad mandate to organize the world’s information, presumingly any idea could be considered among the best.

Google’s challenge of coming up with big ideas is something Om Malik wrote about a few months ago. Personally, I’m not insistent that innovation is only for game-changing ideas. But perhaps Om’s post can be an angle on the ability to identify the best ideas.

Operationalize ideas: Google is quite good at operationalizing its ideas. Search, AdWords, Gmail, Google Reader, Android, etc. It’s got the resources, market presence and experience to turn an idea into an innovation.

Prediction: Google Starts to Focus Employees’ Innovation Efforts

Google’s innovation strength draws from its employees’  willingness to spend 20% of time of new ideas. It is distinct among global companies with this regard. 20% time as a method of producing an immense number of ideas.

Which means these innovation reviews by top executives will be interesting. Already, Google Wave is the result of these. And a nice answer to whether Google can come up with big ideas.

It wouldn’t surprise me if these innovation reviews, and the projects that are selected, become a signaling effect to the troops. When they see what the top brass green-light and give resource priority to, it will likely have an impact on what they put their 20% time toward. Sure, some entrepreneurial types will do their own thing. And if they don’t get priority treatment, they’ll start their own companies. But I’d wager the majority would likely orient their research and creativity in the preferred areas.

Google’s growth is slowing, although much of that is due to the general economic climate. Still, expect for Eric Schmidt and team to look at areas where they want to see growth. And to let the troops know what those areas are.

Imagine that. All those 3.9 GPA-toting, know-why-a-manhole-cover-is-round brains putting their focus on specific growth areas. As Scott Anthony wrote about Google’s new discipline around innovation:

It doesn’t seem like Google is walking away from its ideals. Rather, it’s trying to couple its world-class approach to the “front end” of the innovation process with the world-class discipline exhibited by companies like Procter & Gamble. It might yet struggle to bring these two approaches together. But success could allow the company to create an innovation capability that actually lives up to the hype.

And hopefully the “stupid ideas” still get attention.


About Hutch Carpenter
Chief Scientist Revolution Credit

4 Responses to Google Gets Serious about Innovation

  1. Zachary Cohen says:

    Great piece. First time reader of u blog. Found u of Friendfeed.

  2. Pingback: Google Gets Serious about Innovation | Guest Practices

  3. Pingback: Google Gets Serious about Innovation | Guest Practices

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