Google’s Innovation -And Everyone’s?
Should we look to Google (the company, not the search engine) for lessons on economic growth and employment? Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, and until last April Google’s chief executive, thinks what he’s got goes way beyond Google’s campus.
“Google proved that you could systematize innovation,” he told me recently, adding that this meant you could “create an environment where are asking why things are the way they are, and wondering if they can be done in a different way — where you look outside your own field for an idea.”
Whether you think that can be made universal depends, on first pass, on whether you feel Google is some kind of special case. On the one hand, Google makes a fortune we’d all like to emulate — $87,000 in profits per employee, in the quarter ending last month, more than IBM or Goldman Sachs, though still less than Apple. It also does an impressive job on innovation, continuously scaling up a computing system the likes of which the world has never seen.
On the other hand, Google is a ludicrously small employer – with 30,000 workers, about as many toil at one Boeing factory in Everett, Wash. Foxconn has more than 10 times that many people assembling iPods just in Longhua, China. Plus, most of those Google people are smarter than the rest of us. Doesn’t that make it a special case, particularly at a time when we need to put millions of less-skilled people to work? One way you do that at scale is manufacturing – look at some numbers if you need convincing.
No matter how smart or degree-laden you are, though, I’d argue that you’re capable of working out ways to improve your environment – look at the ingenuity of any wait or sales person in juggling routes and shifts, or how people in conditions of scarcity – be it a natural disaster, resource deprivation, even confinement – figure out workarounds and communications systems to teach each other.
That is what innovation is all about, applying new inventions and ways of seeing to existing systems. And it’s a universal – we just have to put it into our daily working lives. To that end, Google can teach a lot.
Early on, “we put in a system of mechanisms,” for innovating, Schmidt said, citing the so-called “70/20/10 system.” This was a principle that everyone should spend 70% of their time on their core job, 20% as part of another team, and 10% on something blue sky. It was often honored in name more than the event, I’ve heard from insiders – if you’ve got a critical job and a tight deadline, you don’t give it up at that 70% mark. It was however, a good way for people to see projects all around Google, and test them against their own ideas.