“If your goals are ambitious enough, even failure will be a good achievement.”
– Laszlo Block, Google’s Senior VP of People Operations
Two weeks ago I spent a day at the world’s most innovative company: Google. It felt more like a college campus than a multi-billion dollar company. Yet behind the gyms, mindfulness classes, and gourmet free food, there are 20,000 engineers working furiously. Their goal: breakthrough products that transform the world.
To understand what makes Google so innovative, I studied two “insider’s books:” Laszlo Bock’s Work Rules and Chairman Eric Schmidt’s and Jonathan Rosenberg’s How Google Works. Nevertheless, it is still very difficult to figure out how Google actually works. The reason? While many companies proclaim they are egalitarian and work from the “bottom up,” Google actually does. Gmail, for example, began with a “spare time” project that led to the ubiquitous electronic mailing system many of us use.
Unlike Steve Jobs’ Apple, where the legendary founder had his hands on every product, Google CEO Larry Page and co-founder Sergei Brin give their technical teams wide latitude to experiment. This is how Google is able to attract such brilliant innovation leaders as Arthur Levinson, former CEO of Genentech, who is leading an initiative to combat aging. Understanding Google became even more difficult this fall when it morphed into Alphabet, the holding company that not only includes Google itself, but all its remarkably creative entities like self-driving cars and Google glass.
Beginning as a research project in 1996, Google has rapidly changed the world. Since developing the most successful search algorithm, PageRank, the company has expanded far beyond web search. Since going public in 2004, Google digitized millions of books with Google Books, mapped the world with Google Maps, and generated the first mass-produced, wearable technology – Google Glass.
History demonstrates that companies become less innovative as they grow, as size and creativity are inversely proportional. Not so with Google. So what is its secret?
In “8 Pillars of Innovation”, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki gives eight ways Google stays innovative. These include the mission, idea generation and willingness to fail. One pillar she overlooked, however, was “Develop Innovation Leaders.” These days there are thousands of creative innovators all over the world, but effective innovation leaders like Page and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg are very rare. Yet without highly skilled innovation leaders throughout its organization, Google would never have produced so many innovative products and have so many more in its pipeline.
Take one of Google’s most innovative practices: its policy of giving 20% free time to engineers to work on independent projects. Initiated in 2004, the policy has begun innovations such as Gmail, Google News, and Ad Sense, but not without controversy. It is difficult for any company to justify time for employees to work on small, side projects when the mainstream development projects are all-consuming. Without support of Google’s top leadership, the policy would never have succeeded.
Ironically, Google has a history of underplaying the importance of leadership. In 2001, Page and Brin experimented with a completely flat organization, but the experiment only lasted a few months. Without clear leadership, it was difficult to communicate vision, handle logistics, and foster career development. Shortly thereafter, Schmidt became CEO, a position he held for a decade.
Since then, Google has recognized the importance of developing and hiring innovation leaders. In 2009, Google launched Project Oxygen – a three-year project to understand how the best managers at Google work. Implicit in this project was the understanding that great innovation leaders are required to drive great change. In order for Google to innovate as it has, it required the best minds in the world, and superb innovation leaders with the wisdom to know autonomy with respected inputs and challenges is required to inspire and retain high-powered innovators.
That’s also why Google became the holding company Alphabet – a loosely knit collection of interdependent units that can attract and empower more innovation leaders. As Bock argues in Work Rules, “Micromanagement is mismanagement.” Its collection of innovation organizations provides the freedom to innovate without near-term financial constraints. The new structure is designed to enable Google to retain such established innovation leaders as Google’s new CEO Sundar Pichai, Calico’s Levinson, Google X’s Astro Teller, Sidewalk Labs’ Dan Doctoroff, and venture capital leader Bill Maris.
These innovation leaders possess very different characteristics than most traditional leaders of large enterprises:
• They are “We” leaders, not “I” leaders.
• They align their teams around an inspiring mission and set of values.
• They have high levels of emotional intelligence (EQ) combined with high IQs.
• They possess passion, compassion and courage.
• They are skilled at drawing out the best talents of innovators.
• They inspire, empower, support and protect their innovators and mavericks.
• They focus on bold long-term visions and aren’t deflected by short-term pressures.
• They are superb collaborators with other teams and other leaders.
Google’s model for nurturing innovation leaders may well become the gold standard for other organizations eager to create innovation breakthroughs, without the constant pressure of shareholders for immediate results.
At the very least, in itself it is a breakthrough.