Can we innovate like Google?

[Originally published on the Australian Government Public Sector Innovation Network under a Creative Commons 3.0 BY AU licence]

How do you develop a culture of innovation as Google has done?

On Tuesday 20 May a number of public servants from several departments attended a workshop at Google with Dr Frederik Pferdt, Google’s Head of Innovation and Creativity. Dr Pferdt took us through what Google has learnt about what it takes to innovate.

Frederik noted upfront that society and our systems aren’t particularly good at creativity and wild ideas. He illustrated this point nicely by asking us to very quickly sketch someone else sitting at our tables. When we handed the ‘pictures’ to each other, there was a lot of apologising in advance for the depictions – yet as Frederik noted, you wouldn’t see a child doing that. They wouldn’t apologise, but would share, probably quite proudly, what they had done.

We need to think about creativity as giving ourselves the permission to try something and the permission to show unfinished work. Of course, that isn’t something that is comfortable for a lot of public servants, where we may often feel that we need to have something finished and correct before we show it to colleagues or others.

Frederik talked about how innovation is a process, rather than an event. It is about being able to come up with better ideas all the time. Underlying this process are the following stages:

  • Getting to know the user (the person/people who will interact with the innovation) which involves
  • Empathy
  • Clear problem definition
    • Brainstorming and considering the radical ideas that could result in a x10 improvement (rather than say 10%)
    • Prototyping – making the idea real enough to feel
    • Capturing feedback – what’s good, what could be improved, what needs to be answered, and what new ideas that have come up from the prototype.

Frederik took us through the process – interviewing someone about their experience of innovation in their agency, analysing that information to understand the facts and inferences involved in understanding the problem, brainstorming ideas, very quick prototyping of some ideas, and capturing feedback.

From this, and from Frederik, we learnt that:

  • You cannot force innovation, you can only enable it
  • Adults ask around 11 questions in a day – children around 160. We need to allow ourselves to be a kid, and really understand the problem, not just put forward solutions. Teams usually jump to solutions too quickly
  • Saying ‘no’ is one of the easiest things to do, as it involves no work and no risk, but it will kill ideas. We need to build on the ideas of others – use ‘Yes, and’ rather than ‘No, but’
  • Don’t talk about your idea – it needs to be our idea
  • If you invest more than a day or two on something, you’ll become emotionally invested in it and won’t want to receive any negative feedback. Prototyping needs to be quick – then you’ll be more open to feedback, and finding out what will work
  • Just beyond crazy … is fabulous!

Frederik finished by noting that a key aspect of the innovation process is the ability to trust – whether it be trusting your own creativity, your team members or your organisation overall.

In just two hours we were shown, and participated in, a process by which each table of six or so people could come up with over 40 ideas and some very quick user testing of the most promising ones.

When many of us think of Google, we think of the technology and the cool offices (and yes, the Sydney office appears to be very cool). Yet, as Frederik showed us in a very short time, innovation is really about repeatable process. And if there’s one thing the public service is good at, it’s surely process!

So to sum up my impressions from the workshop, yes, I think we can innovate like Google. We just need to give ourselves the permission to start asking more questions and using our empathy, being prepared to show each other unfinished work, and building on each other’s ideas. We also need to stop thinking that innovation is something that we do on top of our job, and start thinking that innovation is a core part of how we do our job – continually coming up with better ideas and responses.

We’d like to give a big thanks to Google and to Dr Pferdt for hosting the workshop and sharing what they have learnt about developing a culture of innovation.