"Pay my troops no mind; they're just on a fact-finding mission."

Google’s Director Of New Projects – On Innovation

Dr. Astro Teller goes over his system for creating innovation, pointing out that:

  • Innovation is counter-intuitive, otherwise we would already be doing it. This means that experts in a field usually will not be able to predict (1) how useful an innovation will be because they are so deeply entrenched in the system. (2)
  • Ideally you should find 3-4% of experts in a field you a innovating in to agree with you, look for the “weird” ones. They should be willing to join you in your project. If everyone agrees with you, you are too late. If no one agrees with you, you are wrong about it.
  • You can’t judge your feelings on it, you either get a metric to judge progress of an innovation or follow the inventor as he makes progress on his work.
  • It’s important that you have a story about how the innovation would effect people, so that you can create something that actually changes people’s lives.
  • A story has to mention the problem, a product or service that solves the problem, you have to show that there is something hard, be it in creating it or in the legal barriers, and show why it wasn’t already fixed by the market a few years ago.
  • He recommends making people also give him 10 bad ideas along with the one good one, to show that they have been exploring lots of little bets that could pay off, instead of just hinging their success on one “big idea”.
  • It’s also super important to figure out what tools you used to implement that idea, and then spend time on improving those tools so you can innovate and implement the idea even better the next time around.
  • He even goes as far as throwing out the code his team writes for the first 6 months, to give them a lot of room to explore a huge goal and then start fresh with what they learned without having to hook it on to an old system.
  • Rebuilding from scratch allows you to iron out the errors and correct dysfunction. If you can’t rebuild it, you didn’t understand it deeply enough in the first place.
  • Separate the people who have an emotional or practical stake in preventing innovation. You don’t want to start a popularity contest among people who don’t want you to win.
  • You can’t break too many assumptions at the same time, otherwise it will be too far outside of the range of most people to market.
  • He gets his engineer’s to say no more than yes. Engineer’s are emotionally attached to their projects, you need to get them to separate themselves from the project. He even provides an incentive for them to kill their own projects, offering them a bonus if the project works, no bonus if it doesn’t or a bonus +10% or more if they are willing to kill their project and start on something new. The cost of running dumb projects is huge compared to bonuses.
  • You have to even kill the good ideas so that the great ones can prosper.
  • If you want to give people a lot of room to succeed, you have to give them a lot of room to fail and make a mess.
  • Innovation tends to happen in small groups with lots of structure.
  • It can be easier to create a new version with exponential gains, instead of relying on incremental gains. It forces you to stretch your brain to find new ways of solving the problem. You already know you can’t get huge gains using traditional methods. (3)
  • The easiest way to fix problems is to transplant ideas from one field to another.
  • “Me too” ideas can make money, like making new iterations of facebook for doctors, dentists, ect… but they are not innovations. Innovations are a new class. (4)
  • The best fields for innovation are where people are torturing themselves. What is the most painful and awkward thing people are doing in spite of the challenges, how can we make that easier and then sell it?
  • Engineers are taught to solve problems, entrepreneurs and designers are taught to change problems. An engineer will create a great vase, a designer will create a “mechanism to display flowers”, to loosen up the constraints and find the best solution possible.(5)
  • Profit motives tend to drive success, even in social problems. Profit motives make the enterprise more sustainable. Profit motives and making the world a better place are not mutually exclusive.
  • Find areas where big problems exist and there has to be a better solution, even if you don’t know what it is.
  • Some things are on paths that are predictable, in other cases the future must be invented and cannot be predicted.

Most of the books on innovation were made by academics, and usually either written for housewifes or as a dry academic text. Teller does a better job in describing how to create a good incentive system for innovation:

1. Even when elites are aware of technologies they tend to downplay their importance, even the experts in the field didn’t estimate the changes wrought by gunpowder, automobiles or the pc. Tons of engineers had to change their skills almost overnight when the transistor overthrew the vacuum tube. The cybernetic steam engine governor was made by a kid who just wanted to play marbles. The elite’s curiosity wasn’t stimulated enough and they had too much emotional investment in the status quo.

2. Reid Hoffman: “A side note on invention and innovation: when you have an idea for a startup„ consult your network. Ask people what they think. Don’t look for flattery. If most people get it right away and call you a genius, you’re probably screwed; it likely means your idea is obvious and won’t work. What you’re looking for is a genuinely thoughtful response. Fully two thirds of people in my network thought LinkedIn was stupid idea. These are very smart people. They understood that there is zero value in a social network until you have a million users on it. But they didn’t know the secret plans that led us to believe we could pull it off. And getting to the first million users took us about 460 days. Now we grow at over 2 users per second.” Link

3. This is also called the Jack Welch Strech, See The Art Of Asking The Right Questions Link

4. It’s easier and more reliable to make money by copying other people. See First Mover Advantage v. Ecosystem/Fast Follower Advantage Link

5. Increasingly the field of marketing, engineering and design are merging into one as benefits are being custom tailored to products and distribution networks, see Airbnb Link

3 responses to “Google’s Director Of New Projects – On Innovation

  1. skeptically skeptical August 16, 2012 at 7:57 pm

    What has the good doctor innovated, other than inspirational, motivational, innovation speeches?

  2. Pingback: Linkage Is Good For You – Cypher’s Week | Society of Amateur Gentlemen

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