Three Keys to Innovation

I had the opportunity to chat with Google’s western Canada director at a tech pitch contest last month, and I asked her how Google manages to keep being so innovative even though they are now one of the largest and most recognized corporations in the world. Her answer made me think “it can’t really be that easy?”, a signal which I’ve learned to pay attention to.


Inside Google they use Chat and Hangouts (text messaging and virtual meetings) to make all decisions, collaboration, and creation. Nobody sets up meetings for next week if they can help it. They just hop on the existing Google tools (and yes, there are others that do the same thing) and start talking to each other. The default behaviour is face-to-face, the default time is now, and the default ownership is none.

The on-line tools are allow everyone to mark up a project, document, spreadsheet, or slide show. Nobody controls it so everyone can contribute. Your idea may not win, and that’s okay. You may not be the best person to lead or execute that idea, and that’s okay too. But nobody slows down the elaboration, collaboration, or refinement of an innovation. Nobody waits for a meeting, or a mark-up, or a review if possible. It’s all done in real-time, now, and “in-person”.

Of course, because it’s a tech company, they also track how many meetings and how many people take part in those meetings, every day.

The Hard Work: 

Get up and talk to the person you need to talk to. Or dial them up on Skype/Zoom/Hangouts. Or call them. And share the work – give them the pen/whiteboard marker/credit.

I think that last one’s the hardest.

HBRs Tips for Running Virtual Meetings

Stop Risking Your Company on Good Ideas

When I took my Scouts out on camps, there was always a higher purpose. There were the big ones, of course. Like the 9-day jamboree, the 4-day mountain hike, or the 5-day canoe trip. But not every trip was the trip of a lifetime. In fact, I’ve left kids behind because they weren’t ready for it.

How did I know if they weren’t ready?

Build the Right Skills, Tools, and Experience

Firstly, we’d always had a series of smaller camps throughout the entire year to learn, practice, and try-out the skills and tools they’d need. For example, for our five-day canoe trip, we’d start in a local pool, where everybody had to practice recovering from a tipped canoe. Then we moved on to still water, where they learned basic strokes, working together as a team, and controlling the canoe on water.

Then we’d have them move in and out of a real river – which is probably the riskiest part of river canoeing. Along the way they learned hand-signals, whistle signals, how to throw a rescue line, and other river skills.

Us leaders took an extra level of training, actually practicing the skills of rescuing somebody from the river. We all got a chance to put on a wet suit and be rescued, which was both fun and scary. During the trip we had the Scouts throw us lines in the river while we floated by, and they had so much fun they got into the river too.

We didn’t’ just put the kids in a canoe, with a paddle, and said “see you later, we’ll pick you up in five days.” That’s not leadership, and that’s no way to learn leadership. We planned for the best, made ready for the worst, and had a great time. Along the way I’ve used at least two fire extinguishers, one throw-line, and many, many band-aids in earnest. But we never lost a kids or any of their parts.

Build the Right Team

The second thing we did besides training and planning was evaluating. We wanted to see which kids were ready, which were ready to take on even more, and which ones either weren’t taking it seriously or weren’t mentally or emotionally mature enough to be safe in the wilderness. I’ve learned and truly believe that adding or taking away just one person from any team changes the team in unpredictable, non-linear ways. As adults we’re just better at hiding it.

Which is why it amazes me when companies have a good idea, put so much effort into executing it, and then wonder why it failed. They didn’t try things out to see if their good idea would work before putting all their effort and energy behind it.

They didn’t build up skills and experience needed to give it the best chance of success. They didn’t explain and get buy-in from everybody involved about what it would mean to the company. They didn’t build and test the right team. They just put a bunch of people in canoes with paddles and life-jackets, pushed them into the river, and watched them aimlessly float away.

Even worse is when everybody in the company gets into the same boat and drowns. I hope you remembered to hand out the life-jackets.

Be Skeptical of Good Ideas

Try new things in small doses. Don’t stop having good ideas. Just be skeptical of good ideas – try them in small ways first. Build up your capabilities and give your team or company the best chance of success.