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[ARTICLE] Innovation @ Alphabet

Sam Button, Head of Growth, Roar Media

Roar Media’s Sam Button met with Google’s Global Head of Innovation at The Digital Transformation Conference in Manchester last year and heard more on how Alphabet are creating a culture of innovation and always at the forefront of creative thinking.

The design of cultural innovation within Alphabet is based on a term called ‘10x thinking’ all employees are encouraged to take ownership of any issue with process, design, efficiency etc and consider an audacious new solution. This is a fundamental part of their approach to innovation and something they ensure is imprinted throughout their company culture on a global scale.

The idea has been within Alphabet since its inception, they fostered an innovative culture, nurturing ideas that were initially difficult to comprehend; rather than pouring cold water on them. Whilst this doesn’t work 100% of the time, there are significant learnings both individually and company-wide from all projects, as well as many success stories.

Essentially, Alphabet has achieved a start-up culture within a global company, with resources & expertise available to cultivate ideas into products, processes and even stand-alone companies within the umbrella. The start-up culture is essentially an acceptance of exploration and creative licence, with the key aspect of success being the businesses tolerance for projects to fail. This fault tolerant leadership ensures a safe environment where ideas are encouraged and supported.

The idea is to treat everything as a hypothesis, no matter the size of the idea, there must be a proof of concept with a thorough design phase and constant testing. In a genuinely agile approach, tests need to engage with real customers & solicit their feedback; focusing on the user and ensuring innovation remains customer centric even when enhancing internal systems & the digital workplace. Encouraging the constant testing of ideas simultaneously ensures hypotheses are effective and efficient which is business critical in an organisation with truly open innovation at the core and throughout.

Innovation has to be within the DNA of the company, you need to behave as an organisation in this way to scale. Throughout the revolution of digital technology, we have seen a number of large global companies be knocked off their perch due to a lack of innovation. Evolution is a merciless proves, essentially this is survival of the fittest, with the most innovative companies striving during this era of digital transformation. Having a highly adaptable system shows high levels of degeneracy, becoming more robust in the face of change. Harnessing these qualities and imprinting the idea of innovation throughout leads to a company that can quickly multiply services and expertise into new ventures and ideas; staying ahead of the curve.

Alphabet has a vast amount of success stories with this method of actively seeking & explicitly encouraging innovation to increase efficiency and optimisation of legacy services and even launching new digital products. There are numerous examples of individual innovation which has led to the release of products into the market in a ‘beta’ status which have now been around for years. Internal innovation of workplace functions within Alphabet are now widely used as preferred method for email communications, as an alternative browser, geospatial tech, calendar/timekeeping and building mobile computing platforms. Gmail, Chrome, Android, Google Maps & Google Calendar all emerged from this process, starting as 20% project, the equivalent to a start-up within the organisation and are now standalone products which continue to be in active development.

The continued success of innovation has led to a structural change in Alphabet to fulfil the requirement of teams monitoring and learning from the vast amount of global start-up projects. GV (formerly Google Ventures) is a venture capital fund that invests in later stage start-ups, Google for Entrepreneurs curates start-up communities around the world through physical spaces and Area 120 is an internal incubator for employees to embark on a project and bring the product to market as either an Alphabet product or solo company. Alphabet are aware that the highest source of employee churn is leaving to start or join a Start-up, these initiatives capture and harvest some of this innovation, while mitigating the risk that founders take and guiding success through tested methods of innovation.

This culture creates a pool of expertise which each separate product can delve into in order to enhance and prosper from their idea.  A good example of this is two separate entities within google both utilising machine learning & AI in similar ways but with subtly different aims. Google Brain’s primary aim is to make machines intelligent to improve people’s lives, whilst another Google run entity DeepMind’s ethos is ‘Solve for intelligence & use it to make the world a better place’. Whilst they have similar mission statements and use similar resources, the personnel of each company are unique and a hackathon type scenario can be put to both teams as they will attack the problem in a significantly different way.

This inward competition when looking for innovative solutions has been very productive and garnered excellent results. For example, the Power Usage Effectiveness at google is 1.1, the industry average is 1.7. DeepMind, Google Brain and others were tasked with finding a way to reduce the amount of energy used for cooling, each team approached the situation with different ideas and methodologies but DeepMind’s cooling system prevailed by reducing the energy used for cooling by up to 40%, the equivalent to a 15% reduction in Power Usage Effectiveness. Given the sophistication of Google’s data centres, this reduction was a phenomenal step forward and resulted in massive savings and was only achievable through the advent of competition and a blueprint that supported an internal start-up culture of innovation.

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