When it comes to the companies at the forefront of modern day tech innovation, there’s one name that comes up again and again: Google.
In fact, Google’s range of product innovations are so popular, and have had such a fundamental role in shaping our relationship to the internet, that we often think of them as being baked into our online experience.
But how, exactly, does Google create such amazing solutions for its millions of users?
In this innovation case study, we’ll take a look under the hood of this tech behemoth, and will explain what makes Google such a powerful creative force.
From Google’s recognition of innovation at every layer of the company, through to its investment in understanding market trends and needs, we’ll give you a play-by-play of how they do it.
First, let’s start with a look at how Google became Google.
Humble beginnings: a simple solution to a common problem
Today, Google (or, more accurately, Alphabet) is an undisputed tech powerhouse, with quarterly revenue north of $39 billion U.S. dollars, a valuation that is heading fast towards $1 trillion, and a total global workforce just shy of 100,000.
As of writing this post, Google captures an unbelievable 90.5% of the total search engine market share, with over 63,000 searches per second on any given day. Chances are you found this article using Google.
Even more impressive, the average internet user conducts between three to four Google searches every single day. That’s a truly mind-blowing amount of activity.
But before Google was a household name, the company existed to find a simple solution to a very common problem in the early days of the web: ranked search results.
As Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin later explained in a letter to investors ahead of the company’s IPO in 2004, “our intense and enduring interest was to objectively help people find information efficiently.”
In 1996, Page and Brin were frustrated with the lack of organization on the web. They noticed weblinks were presented to users in a haphazard way, making it hard to navigate between pages and find the desired information.
To address this problem, they combined their knowledge of mathematics and computer science to build an algorithm that recognized for the number of links to a web domain, gauged the importance of those links, and ranked the most important results first.
This simple yet powerful idea led to the release of the first version of Google in August 1996, hosted on Stanford University’s website.
As the New York Times explains, this search for an elegant solution to a widespread problem is the genesis for many of the world’s most transformative companies, including the likes of Uber, Netflix, Twitter, and many more.
So, how exactly did Google turn it’s elegant solution for ranking web pages into a network of dozens of popular and transformative products?
It all comes down to Google’s innovation framework.
Nine Pillars: Google’s strategic approach to innovation
For a company with such an ambitious range of products and services, it’s crucial for Google to have a focused, disciplined approach to innovation.
That’s why Google uses a company-wide innovation strategy - its “Nine Pillars of Innovation” - to map and prioritize all innovation projects and activities, and to help guide staff creativity.
And helpfully for us, we don’t have to guess at Google’s secret sauce: Google’s ‘Chief Brand Marketing Evangelist’ Gopi Kallayil spilled the beans at San Francisco’s Dreamforce Summit back in 2013.
Now, here’s a quick rundown of Google’s nine principles to support company-wide innovation.
#1): Recognize that innovation comes from anywhere
Google recognizes a fundamental truth about innovation: it can come from anywhere, at any time, and in any form.
So, rather than relying on creativity and inventiveness from specific teams and individuals, Google encourages employees in every part of the business to contribute their best ideas.
For example, a doctor on Google’s staff once argued that the company had a moral obligation to provide assistance and support to users searching for phrases relating to suicide and self-harm.
Afterwards, Google adjusted its search engine to display the number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline in response to queries like these. This led to a significant boost in calls to the hotline, with millions of people getting the help they need.
This commitment to innovation and responsiveness at every level lets Google channel the true creative potential of its workforce, and propose solutions using a broad pool of skill, talent, and experience.
#2): The user comes first
In searching for creative solutions to common problems, Google employees are encouraged to put the user first, and worry about profitability later. While this might sound counterintuitive, it’s precisely this attitude that has led to some of the most helpful Google products.
A great example, says Gopi Kallayil, is Google’s rollout of predictive analysis, helping users to search for things faster and with greater accuracy.
While sales reps within the company were concerned about cutting down the time users would be viewing ads, Google committed to the idea because it was useful, and would lead to faster web navigation and a more positive user experience overall.
This approach shows the value of user-first thinking. Sometimes, the most innovative ideas or products (such as FedEx, Square, and even Tupperware) don’t have a clear path to profitability. Putting the user first is a great way to make sure these ideas get out into the world anyway.
#3): Aim to be ten times better
At Google, incremental improvement just isn’t good enough. Employees are encouraged to aim high, and to envision truly world-changing projects.
We can see this ambitious ethos at work in the company’s acquisition of what would eventually become Google Maps.
In a less innovative company, the concept of making interactive maps and trip planners available online would have been a more modest project, focusing merely on making traditional paper maps available for web users.
Instead, Google set the goal of revolutionizing the way people use the web to plan trips. It built a system that would learn and improve with every single journey, and would adapt to the travel habits and preferences of each user.
Now, Google Maps is the world’s leading navigation interface, with over 154 million monthly users. In fact, the system has so thoroughly transformed the way we travel, it’s even started to undermine ‘The Knowledge’, the elite test for London’s cab drivers.
#4): Technical insights trump market research
Google knows a key truth about innovation: technical product insights can be a lot more useful than market research.
While there’s still a lot of utility in asking users what they want, those with the most advanced knowledge should be put in the driver’s seat.
Perhaps the best example of this is the jewel in Google’s crown - its search engine. Over the years, Google has fine-tuned its engine not through asking users what they wanted, but through putting technically-gifted thinkers to work making incremental improvements.
There’s a great reason for this. While users and customers can give helpful advice on what they love and hate about a particular product, they lack the expertise to know what’s truly possible in product development, and to envision radical new ideas for disruptive innovations.
Of course, this isn’t to say Google ignores its users. The company still pays plenty of attention to what people want, but knows that the biggest leaps forward tend to come from those with the deepest and most comprehensive technical knowledge.
#5): Ship and iterate
Similar to Facebook’s now abandoned credo of “move fast and break things”, Google is all about iterative progress. It pushes services and products out to customers early, then uses feedback to move step-by-step towards the best possible version.
Rather than wait for perfection, Google recognizes that products are smoothed out through user feedback. That’s why, when it launched Chrome back in 2008, Google opted for a learn-as-you-go approach, updating the browser every six weeks to iron out kinks.
This iterative approach is a great way to fine-tune innovative products over time, and helps Google’s products and services to be well-suited to customer demand. It’s also a great way to avoid too much hesitation in rolling out new products.
#6): Allow employees 20% time
For the company, this is an excellent way to encourage people to draw on their full range of innovative capabilities. It’s also a great way to keep employees engaged.
Beyond this, however, the 20% time approach is a way to encourage ideas for world-changing products. In fact, many of Google’s most popular innovations, including Gmail and AdSense, originally began as 20% time projects.
Even though some ex-Google employees have said the policy results in additional obligations for employees to innovate on top of their core job responsibilities (becoming 120% time, as one person put it), there’s still huge value in dedicating time for people to innovate.
#7): Commit to open innovation
Google has a long history of embracing the wisdom of crowds, and its run of inventive and innovative products tells us a lot about the very real benefits of this kind of open innovation.
For example, as Fast Company notes, when developing the Android platform, Google knew it needed access to the planet’s top developers to really fulfil the platform’s potential.
Because of this, the company encouraged developers outside the company to create their own apps, forming a creative ecosystem of open innovation. The end result? The creation of over three million helpful apps for Android users.
Even if Google didn’t benefit directly from these creative efforts, making the platform open source turned the Android interface into a much more attractive product. As with Microsoft’s promotion of MS-DOS, this helped to drive uptake and create a dedicated community of users.
#8): Don’t make failure a bad word
Google recognizes that not every innovation will succeed. Instead, the company cultivates an appetite for failure, seeing it as a necessary part of successful innovation.
This has led to a famously long list of failed Google innovations, from content sharing novelty Bump! through to the often mocked headset Google Glass (which, surprisingly, might even be making a comeback now).
Rather than hiding from these missteps, Google uses every failed innovation as a chance to learn and improve. By celebrating these examples, Google helps to dispel the stigma around failure, contributing to a much more forgiving and supportive innovation culture.
And let’s not forget, for a company as successful as Google, the odd failure is unlikely to put a dent in the company’s core profitability anyway. The Google business model is large enough to cope with the occasional mishap.
#9): Do work that matters
Finally, Google’s innovation strategy is powered by a simple but powerful ethos: everyone at the company should do work that has a positive impact on the world.
Google employees are encouraged to draw a straight line between their day-to-day obligations and the company’s mission: “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”.
The company’s commitment to do work that matters isn’t just a feel-good corporate story - it gives Google employees a great reason to get out of bed in the morning and do their best work.
Active innovation management: making the hard calls
As we’ve seen, Google isn’t afraid of trying out a bunch of radical and potentially unprofitable ideas on the journey towards transformative product innovation. This not only requires tolerance for failure - it also requires active innovation management.
In practice, this means the company cultivates a wide pool of innovations, supports them from development through to testing and piloting, and provides them with the resources, leadership, and guidance they need to flourish.
However, Google also sets high expectations for new innovations. When projects aren’t performing as expected, or where problems arise that threaten core company values, Google isn’t afraid to make the tough calls - including suspending or even terminating these projects.
No other example summarizes this active approach to innovation management than the decision to can Google+ in early 2019. After struggling with low user uptake (not to mention rumours of user data breaches), Google made the call to shutter this social network, despite knowing that doing so would attract criticism from users and commentators.
This approach to innovation management shows how, if companies want to support radical innovation, they need to make bold decisions when things aren’t going as expected. Companies must set clear performance metrics, and need to respond if these metrics aren’t met.
This active innovation management helps Google to avoid a classic innovation pitfall - that of pouring endless time, effort, and resources into under-performing innovations.
Put the feedback loop to work
At Google, every step of the innovation process is rigorously documented to inform future efforts. Each innovation project forms part of a feedback loop, and performance information is mined for helpful lessons and observations.
In practice, this requires researchers and product teams to work closely at each stage of project development, collaborating on better ways to do things. The company’s Google Brain team is perhaps the best example of this, capturing project information from across the company.
The Google Brain team’s collection of innovation feedback and performance has led to key improvements in core Google products, such as the Gmail Smart Reply feature, and the expansion of Google Translate to cover over 100 languages.
In practice, you don’t need to invest in anything quite as fancy as deep learning or AI to put the innovation feedback loop to work. All you need is to capture the lessons learned in launching a new innovation and actively look for ways to improve future innovations as a result.
The Blue Ocean approach: creating new markets
In addition to providing a range of popular tools in competitive markets (such as email servers, online calendars, and team collaboration tools), Google also dedicates a lot of time and effort to Blue Ocean innovation - the discovery of uncontested markets.
Defined by writers W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, Blue Ocean innovation refers to products in markets with little to no competitors. Rather than have to pit a product against a range of others, Blue Ocean innovation introduces products to suit new market needs.
A nice example of this Blue Ocean strategy at work is Google’s decision to capture hiking routes and information as part of Google Maps, and to promote these experiences to web users interested in the outdoors.
While there are plenty of other hiking guides out there, incorporating hiking trails into an existing online travel planner is an example of an uncontested market. By offering this service, Google doesn’t have to deal with any competition for advertising revenue.
Embracing future thinking
Google has had an amazing 20-year run of shaping how we experience the internet. But as we look ahead to the next decade of Google services, what can we expect from the company?
Throughout Google’s history, the company has set itself apart by committing to simple, elegant solutions that stand the test of time. As we’ve seen, by adopting an iterative approach to innovation, Google makes sure its products keep up with market tastes and demands.
Now, however, the range of technical and ethical questions Google needs to consider are bigger than ever.
Google is grappling with questions around data manipulation, the use of bots to frame public debate, and the worrying tendency for web users to see search results as infallible. There are also questions around the role of AI and machine learning in shaping our online experiences.
In this environment, Google’s future-focused approach to innovation is crucial to staying relevant and conserving public trust. Google must make sure its products stay fit-for-purpose in a changing world, and must keep a close eye on consumer trends and preferences.
Is Google too powerful?
As an innovative force shaping the tech world, Google faces a problem not faced by many other companies: is the company too big, too influential, and too powerful?
With the company handling 90.5% of the world’s web searches, it’s a fair question to ask. And with an increasing awareness of the tricky ethics around data use and privacy considerations on the web, some users are wondering if they might trust Google a little too much.
Google’s size, and its dominance over so much web activity, does lead to a bunch of interesting questions: Can Google ever be truly accountable to its users? Is the company too big to be effectively regulated? And do governments need a new way to think about tech monopolies?
As one New York Times writer puts it, some companies “can no longer be understood in terms of former competitors or current peers - because they don’t really have any.” Google definitely fits in this category, along with Silicon Valley neighbours Apple and Facebook.
For now, Google’s position at the front of the pack doesn’t seem to be slowing down the company’s rate of innovation, or the extent to which these innovations are shaping the world.
Innovation tips from the big players
When it comes to innovation, there’s nothing more informative and illuminating than studying the habits, techniques, and disciplines of the big players.
And what better case study to teach the value of innovation than Google?
After all, there are good reasons why Google routinely tops the lists of the world’s most innovative companies. The Silicon Valley giant has been at the forefront of digital innovation for two decades now, with no signs of slowing down.
With Google’s relentlessly innovative approach to product development, it’s willingness to use future thinking to analyze problems and opportunities, and its bold capturing of uncontested markets, it’s not hard to see why this tech powerhouse remains so dominant.
So, take a look at Google’s ‘Nine Pillars of Innovation’, its active approach to innovation management, and its use of the feedback loop. Then, think about how you could borrow a little bit of the company’s recipe for creativity in your own business.