Google Innovation: Culture and Practices

When I heard about a talk on innovation at Google, I was obiously interested all the more that the brief summary looked great. here is the video on youtube, and below the summary:


It was given by Dan Russell, Research Scientist and Search Anthropologist, Google and was part of the Series of the CITRIS Research Exchange from UC Berkeley on March 16, 2011.

12:00 p.m.
Wednesday, March 16
Banatao Aud., 3rd floor, Sutardja Dai Hall, UC Berkeley

About the talk:

As a company, Google clearly relies on innovation to keep our business alive and growing. Translating that desire into a continual innovation practice is central to the outlook and world-view that Google has as a corporate culture. Innovation isn’t just for the futurists, but a part of what everyone in the company is expected to do on a day-to-day basis.
People who work on internal processes, for example, are expected to be as innovative as engineers and product managers who drive externally visible products. Innovation isn’t something that the company can just leave to a few bright minds, but is deeply embedded in the culture of the company.

Beyond culture, though, there are a few pragmatic behaviors that help Google be innovative. A commonplace belief is that innovation originates with an identified market or user need. While we design for the user, we recognize that innovative ideas originate in many places—sometimes with user needs, but also occasionally from technology opportunities that suddenly become available. In these cases, the user need might not be clearly identified at the outset of research, but become evident only over time. Ultimately, of course, an innovation has to be user-relevant, but we understand that not everything starts that way.

One of the key drivers of Google innovation is our focus on data-driven analytics of our products. We instrument just about everything we can think of, log the data (anonymizing along the way to preserve privacy), then analyze it extensively. We recognize that innovation often proceeds in an evolutionary fashion, and that apparently large leaps in design and novel concepts are often hidden beneath a great deal of under-the-covers work the precedes the public announcement.

In user-interface design, for example, we don’t just do A/B testing, but often A/B/C/D/E/F/… testing. And one of the deep lessons of such an extensive testing program is that we recognize that our intuitions are often incorrect. Large changes in the design may very well lead to poor performance shifts, while tiny, sometimes imperceptible changes can have profound consequences. In many of our products, the UI changes significantly over time, particularly as we learn from our experiments, but also as new technology and data becomes available.

Innovation is thus often smoothly evolutionary, albeit looking like punctuated evolution from the outside, but driven by continual rapid iteration and redesign, always driven by an objective function that includes goodness-of-fit to the environment and exaptation of opportunities as they arise.

Finally, we find that innovative products really are the product of many minds. A very small team might drive the initial design and creation of the concept, but having multiple people look at, evaluate, comment-upon and lend supporting insights is valuable. The trick is to allow these additional insights to be supportive, and not weigh the original ideas down with extraneous freight. Keeping an innovation clear, clean and useful to the consumer is an important practice to avoid losing the key insight and value in the innovation.

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