Still Learning: Innovating, Beyond the Catchword

Part of 17 Years of Lessons Learned Series – Originally posted on LinkedIn

Ugh, is this word overused or what? I know I work at Google, an innovative company, but it still makes my eyes roll when I hear phrases like “cutting edge” or “leading technology”. Innovation has become a common ask of teams and individuals, a practical issue since people are the fuel of companies. But to me, it’s another one of these impossibly vague asks. I can’t just yell “INNOVATE” at a team and expect them to magically 10X (another catchphrase) everything. In fact, I was so annoyed by hearing the word “innovation” on a previous team that I refused to use it. Instead I explained innovation through these words: invention and change. Inventing new ways of doing or creating things that we couldn’t see before is the root of innovation, but more importantly positive change.

Why is innovation spoken about so much anyway? I could REALLY spend time digging into the psychology of Silicon Valley but that would be another article. For our teams, we are trying to create an environment where our employees can not only think big but also feel encouraged to do so. A world that keeps them motivated and also leads to better business results. Forget the tech innovator announcing the latest gadget on a big stage. This means acting more like a farmer creating a brand-new garden from the ground up and nourishing seeds so they thrive.

“Let’s take some risks”

As I became more senior, innovation became a job expectation. This consistently showed up in my performance feedback over the last 5 years, especially when I was part of a startup group within Google/Alphabet.

“In the coming years, the biggest challenge for each member of our leadership team is scaling…I urge Alana to continue investing in developing these capabilities — many of which she does well today at smaller scale.”

“Let’s make one or two big bets. The right big bets are about identifying the key insights/innovations that move the needle..Let’s take some risks, make the investment and manage to really differential results.”

“Alana seems really comfortable with taking risks, setting expectations, and being clear when we’re experimenting and why. I wouldn’t say this is something that feels a part of the team culture right now. These things seem necessary when we’re talking about big bets or moonshots, but I’m hoping Alana can help build this spirit into the smaller decisions and interactions as well. How do you get at the fear of experimenting or pushing past incrementalism?”

It wasn’t enough for me to think big. I needed to get my team to think big in everything they did, too. They needed to consistently push the boundaries and see possibility as well. If that didn’t happen, we’d be weighed down by the everyday minutiae and never make big leaps. A failed garden.

Which leads to the hard question. How can we enable our teams think big?

10X-ing

It took me an embarrassingly long time to seize upon one of the key benefits of Google: you can find an expert in almost anything. I had an epiphany/power trip at the 11 year mark that if I wanted to ping a nuclear physicist, I could. If I wanted to meet an aerospace engineer, I could! Google hires such a diverse set of talent that it’s simply up to you to take advantage. In my case, I’ve leveraged Learning and Development experts repeatedly. A good L&D advisor can help you figure out the right way to teach a skill versus simply lecturing at people. And when I had an idea for a training about 10X thinking, I marched myself to an Instructional Designer for help.

My idea was simple. I wanted to walk my team through a series of exercises to allow their ideas to flourish, to expand their horizon further than they would by themselves. If we did this right, it would give them a tool to use in the future when they needed to think big. A big part of this was helping them suppress their internal naysayers and practice some “yes, and” thinking.

Here are my tips inspired by this experience:

1) Build a creative environment

You may have noticed many icebreakers or team building exercises seem to harken back to things you did as a child. Triggering the creativity and imagination we used everyday when we were children can open us up to new ideas. Even a simple introduction question at a team meeting — like what your favorite game was as a child — can get people into a very different mindset from everyday work. This is also why some offices have toys, e.g. Legos or makerspaces. Creativity is contagious — it helps inspire other areas of our work and also the people around us.

2) Baby Steps

Help your team break this down into stages. What’s the difference between an idea and a 10X idea? A 10X idea requires bravery, people might think it’s crazy, and most importantly it takes us to a radically different place. People don’t easily leap there from their safe zone because it’s uncomfortable, scary, and not natural at first. It’s up to you to create an environment where they feel safe to share their thoughts, open their minds, and even to fail.

To open the 10X exercise I crafted, each person wrote down a personal goal. For example, my goal was writing more. Then, we each wrote down what was blocking us from achieving the goal, often the everyday obstacles and barriers we face. Next, we thought through ideas that would help accomplish our goal. During this exercise we needed to silence our inner critic; this was helped by having the exercise move pretty rapidly. Each part was just a minute or two. We finished by circling the idea that resonated the most with us from our brainstorm.

But then I said we needed to double the original goal. We went through the exercise again identifying new hindrances. And then we adjusted our ideas to meet the 2X goal. For instance, I amplified my goal by saying I would publish my writing. In order to achieve that, I had to grow my original idea from scheduling a weekly writing session to also posting my writing on a blog. (Check!)

This helped people grow their ideas more naturally without forcing big ideas from the get go. We also started with something personal to help build on this skill before laying on the work pressures.

3) Help them get help

When we try to think bigger than 2X though, most of us need advice and support. In my case, a 5X goal is publishing a book. I need advice about the publishing industry for example.

When ideas get that big, it’s time to leverage other people to help build our ideas. Of course, we want to pick positive people versus naysayers! People who might give us tough advice, but who’ll also steer us in the right direction versus pointing out all the opportunities for dead-ends.

To encourage this on your team, have everybody partner up and practice “yes, and” conversations: heavy on the listening and helping people build their ideas. This is the fertilizer for the seeds of ideas. Here’s a link to a ‘yes, and’ exercise.

After practicing that, have team members try the same thing with a work idea. In my experience, the conversations flow easily and feel supportive after the earlier practice.

4) Step back with encouragement

10X ideas don’t happen overnight. Just like a garden, you need to wait to see which seeds grow into the best plants, which are the strongest to survive. Sustain a culture of nurturing ideas through simple steps:

  • Keep Going: Encourage your team members to find another person or two to discuss and build their idea.
  • More ‘yes’ work: Ask them also to practice ‘yes, and’ thinking as they have ongoing conversations with each other. Occasionally remind people about this useful “improv” tool.
  • Connect the dots: When a team member asks for your advice, think about 1 – 2 other people you can introduce them to. Play connector for your teams and see where the ideas go!
  • Preach experimentation. When people get nervous about moving forward with their ideas, recommend they do a smaller experiment to test out their theory or elements of the project. Many of the experiments will be successful or teach them valuable ways to alter their idea. Regardless help people feel safe to fail by reducing the stakes.
  • Share: Have team members share along the way, what they learned and how it went. This doesn’t have to wait until the end of a project; you can have people share at various stages of building and implementing an idea. This way people can really dig into the learning from each stage. This also encourages a “safe to fail” environment where people feel rewarded and recognized for trying things.

By watering the garden, you are inviting and encouraging this type of environment at work. This leads to observably happier teams as well as bigger ideas. I hope this advice works for you as well.

What else has worked for you in building a culture of invention and change? Comment below!

Note: I don’t provide names or other identifiable information of who gave/provided me feedback. I also omit any confidential or sensitive information about specific work or people. I share quotations so you can experience the feedback as I did, but those examples are carefully curated. The opinions stated are my own, not those of my company.

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