I recently downloaded the latest Steven Levy book, “In the Plex” which is pretty much a history of Google. It’s now on my nice friendly iPad where Kindle software delivers me a lot of interesting things.
I use Google products on a daily basis. Their search is generally reliable apart from a blip last year when it was useless for a while. With personalisation/instant search it seems to be improving again. I use gmail because – by and large – it works and now it’s accessible on all my devices with relatively little hassle. But I didn’t know too much about the company other than it was founded by a couple of kids some time ago. Those kids are around my age now which is a bit odd when you think of it.
Anyway, one of the things that struck me about Google is just how creative they are on certain fronts. They need to save money? They ask their staff for ideas on how to do it. I’ve worked in quite a few companies. I have to say that for the lossmaking ones, I don’t think they ever entertained the idea that asking their staff for advice on where to cut waste was a good idea. Many old school companies just go for the wages and staff every time.
The other thing which they do that I think is highly interesting is their 20% idea. If you’re not familiar with this (and if you don’t work in tech, you probably wouldn’t be), the general gist is that Google employees can turn 20% of their work time over to a personal project that interests them – a lot of google products grew out of this. I think 3M may have done something not too different from whence we got post-it notes.
One of the things which I have noticed that stifles innovation in a lot of companies – not internet search companies – is that ideas are often top down. Another thing is obviously when an idea comes from bottom up is that there is a cat fight over who gets credit for it. This isn’t really in the interest of the company when you think about it. If you brought about a situation whereby anyone who had an idea could fight for it and also be given appropriate credit for it, you might find a lot more interesting innovation coming from your staff. With it, that will bring a lot more employee involvement beyond merely the salary. Just the feeling of having made an unexpected difference.
Google hasn’t a massively hierarchical management structure for a company of its size which may make it easier to implement slightly left of centre ideas like this. But I don’t see any real reason why it couldn’t work in a hierarchically managed company either. A key component of why Google is where it is now is that it was a company that fostered ideas. A lot of mainstream companies – regardless of size – don’t do this any more. They are not looking at ideas really; they are looking at money and how to get it.
Yet every company everywhere started with an idea. I think ultimately that those ideas are currency, and because of the culture in many companies – where communication is very often a one way route – ideas get lost, or delayed.
It’s something to think about. I have another blog on this site which I use as an ideas whiteboard. There isn’t a whole lot there now but it’s a creative space where I think it would be useful to be able to look at things and reason out how they could work.