Organizations are facing unprecedented change and challenges stemming from a confluence of natural and artificial conditions. These forces are driving many to rethink the tools and technologies they use, and the places they need to be, to grow and to innovate. Below, Vinton G. Cerf, Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google, shares five lessons on growing a culture of innovation.
Culture is always a work in progress.
1. Sustained competitive advantage cannot be achieved with technology alone.
To create a more innovative business, you must rethink how people, structures, and processes interact every day—we refer to this as organizational culture. The teams you rely on to build must have systems and processes that keep them engaged, amplify their ability to produce, and keep them consistently forward-looking.
At Google, we’ve spent years thinking about how to maintain and improve a culture that fosters transformation and innovation. This has led to alignment around certain core principles that have informed our approach and supported Google’s culture for two decades.
2. Measure, make decisions, and be transparent in that process.
Measurement is at the heart of everything we do at Google. We measure everything—from how our systems are running, to how productive we are, to how people are feeling. All the data we gather is extremely valuable, because it exposes problems faster than if we simply scratched our heads and wondered. Once we gather that data, we still need to spend some time interpreting it, but at least we have a basis for judging how well our organizational structure is working.
It’s important to recognize that a feedback system only works when people believe changes will be made as a result of their feedback.
A culture of measurement results in a collection of anecdotal information as well as quantitative data. Both are necessary to inform change. We perform a number of different measurements—for example, encouraging everyone to participate in an anonymous employee satisfaction survey every year. That data and that feedback loop facilitate our decisions to change how we’re doing things, as needed.
Once we’ve gathered the data and made a decision, it’s time to actually put those changes into motion. It’s important to recognize that a feedback system only works when people believe changes will be made as a result of their feedback. So the trick is to ask the questions and then actually do something with the result.
Transparency is another important part of Google culture. It’s important that we be transparent about the feedback we heard, and how we went about addressing it. Being transparent as a company increases customer trust on one hand, and employee trust on the other. It’s important that people understand why we prioritized the changes we made. That’s core to the company’s DNA.
3. Don’t be afraid of failure.
Sometimes science learns more from failure than it does from success. If you ask why something didn’t work, you often learn more than you would have if it actually did work. And so, even at Google, we try a lot of things out that don’t work—and we learn from them and refine our practices. And eventually, we hope, we get to the point where the things that we want to work actually do work. Science is a lot like that. Google is a lot like that as well.
You have to have the willingness to allow failure. I’m not suggesting we should fail all of the time—that would be a problem! I’m talking about the freedom to try things out without absolute certainty of success. This is the fundamental difference between engineering and research.
With research, you don’t start off knowing the answer. With engineering, you think you know the answer, and you just have to build it. But what can happen with engineering is that you build it and then it doesn’t work. These two disciplines interact in the most wonderful ways. The engineer says, “I built it and it didn’t work.” The researcher says, “Why not?” And the engineer says, “I don’t know, can you help?” Together, they discover there’s a fundamental reason why this particular path for implementation didn’t work—and they learn from that. And then you get to develop a new design that takes this into account.
At Google, we’ll go down a number of different paths as we explore new capabilities in the system, and we often encourage people to go down these paths, even if they might end up at a dead end. And we share, blamelessly, with others the fact that there was a dead end, so everyone learns. That’s how we advance everybody’s ability to carry out their work.
4. Don’t forget that culture is always a work in progress.
Over time, as the mix of people joining the company changes and as the scale of the company gets bigger, we have to remind people about the cultural norms that we would like to maintain.
You have to periodically refresh the cultural elements that matter.
For example, one of the things that Google tries to accomplish is to give people the freedom to try things out, which resulted in a policy of allowing engineers to spend 20% of their time doing things that they weren’t originally assigned to do. People use 20% time to learn outside of their assigned duties and it actually acts as a stabilizing component of employee satisfaction.
The idea of 20% diminished for a while as we grew, until we reminded everybody that that 20% was fundamental to Google and was a cultural element that we wanted to maintain. It’s important to remember that you have to periodically refresh the cultural elements that matter.
5. Stay open.
If I were trying to give advice to an enterprise CIO, one of the things I would say is this: Don’t think that you have all the answers. In fact, the probability is very high that you don’t have very many of them at all. Take advantage of opportunities to share knowledge with your colleagues, your friends, even your competitors to better understand what others have learned in order to solve the same problems you have. Openness is your friend. The same thing is true when it comes to not taking all the credit. It’s important to acknowledge other people’s contributions because it gives them the incentive to continue contributing. And so this kind of openness of spirit is just as important as openness of ideas.
Technology alone does not guarantee success. You need a culture that supports change and acceleration—which paves the way for innovation. People have always powered technology, and today that’s especially true as teammates must collaborate and solve big problems together, even if they’re not in the same room. Fostering a culture of innovation helps lead to identification of new opportunities, and quick action to create new ideas and get ahead of the competition.
Keep reading: Discover three steps any organization can take to quickly adapt and achieve positive results with tighter resources. .