Innovation has always been a top priority for successful organisations. For a company such as Google, innovation is part of everything they do. The search giant which is widely acclaimed for its culture of innovation makes sure that teams continue to collaborate and brainstorm to improve their products and services, internal processes, and even workspaces as they work remotely.
One of the initiatives that the company launched at the beginning of the pandemic was project “Reimagine” which explored how workers want to work at Google in the future. ‘We see that today some of these imaginations became a reality and that’s exciting,’ says Frederik, who launched the project.
In this interview, Frederik sheds light on the importance of experimental mindset, the culture of innovation and innovation for sustainable growth.
As the Chief Innovation Evangelist at Google, Frederik’s mission is to grow an innovation mindset in everyone and he believes creativity exists in all of us. Frederik’s currently serves as Innovation Consultant to the United Nations (UN), advisor to the Stanford University Innovation Fellows (UIF) and Innovation Coach of the German Soccer Association (DFB) and member of the “Hall of Fame” (Paderborn University).
Here are the edited excerpts of the interview.
We lived in a storm of accelerated innovation even before the current pandemic. How has the two years of disruption changed how corporations view the need to innovate?
Before the pandemic, everyone wanted to innovate. Now, most organizations have to innovate. Globally, we see a high level of experimentation happening everywhere - in the way we think about areas like work, education, and sustainability. Experimentation leads to plenty of learning, and it’s wonderful to see how companies from various sectors are finding new ways to do things differently and better.
As a physical space enthusiast myself, who created spaces like The Google Garage, I am excited about the experiments we are currently running and the possibilities we see with new designs and technology as we think about the future of work. We have teams who started testing new multi-purpose offices and private workspaces and working with teams to develop advanced video technology that creates more significant equity between employees in the office and those joining virtually. I hope that we don't throw away or forget what we are learning but use all we learn in our experiments - small and large - to create a better future for all of us.
So, to create the pathways to a better future, we need to embrace sustainable practices. Right? Is sustainability a new driver of innovation? How do you see the focus on innovation for sustainable growth?
Absolutely. Many business leaders that we work with acknowledge that climate change is no longer a distant threat and it’s important that we are all finding new, meaningful solutions to address this urgent challenge.
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At Google, sustainability has been a core value for us for the past two decades. We were the first major company to become carbon neutral in 2007 and the first major company to match our energy use with 100 per cent renewable energy in 2017. As our next and most ambitious goal yet, we aim to operate entirely on 24/7 carbon-free energy by 2030 at our data centers, cloud regions, and campuses worldwide.
We are constantly finding new, innovative ways to ensure our products can help more people make more sustainable choices. For example, when I book my flights, I can now check carbon emissions and choose the flight with the least amount of CO2 produced. Or, with Google Maps, I can choose an eco-friendlier route. Across all industries, I believe organisations of all sizes must and can help build a more sustainable future for everyone.
One of the hot topics today is about elevating the 'experience' of customers and employees. How are organisations innovating to improve the experience of their key stakeholders?
Many companies are realising from working through the pandemic, that creating the best employee experience starts with empathy: to truly understand how one's feeling and thinking to provide solutions that genuinely work for them. Research shows that work is no longer a place, time is more precious, and human connection is crucial.
Working in a virtual-first environment is a challenge and an opportunity at the same time. The challenge is to make sure that everyone feels a sense of belonging and has valuable work We need to make sure that we are aware of our biases and operate inclusively and at the same time, we have the opportunity to create in-person and virtual experiences that value human connection. For instance, to help Googlers stay engaged and productive while working remotely, we have been introducing virtual events and peer-to-peer learning activities, grassroots-led initiatives to help our employees worldwide remain connected and engaged.
We also continue to take a data-driven approach to understand our Googlers and regularly invite them to provide feedback on productivity, well-being, and how they're feeling and coping.
The pandemic encouraged us at Google to relook at our policies and think about new ways to support our Googlers. By listening to our Googlers, we introduced new initiatives and policies to help our Googlers prioritize their health and well-being. For example, we rolled out Global Reset Days so Googlers can take time off to recharge throughout the year. Google recently announced the increased amount of time employees can take for vacation.
What's your advice for leaders on how to experiment and continue to innovate as they sail through this era of disruption?
Let's use this metaphor for a moment, as I am a passionate sailor myself. How can leaders sail through ambiguity? We can all see ourselves as ships: individuals as smaller ships, start-ups as larger, medium-sized, large companies, or governments as tankers. We got into this situation with the pandemic: The lines were cut loose - all boats were suddenly floating on the sea, and everything was interrupted, disrupted or paused, even cancelled. And now it becomes clear which boats are seaworthy at all.
Perhaps now it will show how prepared the crews were. What is the mindset of the crew members? How do they react when they have to navigate the sea in strong winds? What are their attitudes and values? Do you want to go straight back to the harbour, or do you say we're going out into the fog and trying to reach and explore another harbour?
So, my advice to leaders, the captains of these ships, is to develop a mindset to navigate ambiguity and lead in complexity and inspire others. We can all train ourselves to be better prepared for any future challenges that come our way.
Has anything changed over the last two years about how Google innovates? Can you share some insights and how do you measure the impact of your initiatives?
Innovation is part of everything we do, and it's wonderful to see that we continue to innovate in many areas of the company even today. Even as many of our workforce work remotely, teams continue to collaborate and brainstorm to improve our products and services, internal processes, and even workspaces. We learned that having the right values is the backbone of creating a solid company culture. We believe that respect for our users, the opportunity, and each other are foundational to our success. These shared values bring us together as a community fuel us to collaborate and continuously think out of the box - all with a common purpose of tackling real problems.
One of the projects that we launched and I was co-leading at the beginning of the pandemic was project “Reimagine” where we explored how we want to work at Google in the future. We see that today some of these imaginations became a reality and that’s exciting.
One innovation that is bringing us a little closer to how the future could look is AI-based Teaching a machine to have a natural, free-flowing conversation under all that nuance is one of the most difficult challenges for computer scientists to solve — and one of our teams is on the road to actually figure it out.
How do you make sure Google workers continue to experiment? What's your one big priority in 2022 as the chief innovation evangelist of Google?
In these times of uncertainty, it is tempting for most of us to take as few risks as possible. That's why we need to help Googlers and our clients adopt an experimental mindset, where we can try things quickly and learn what works and what doesn't. For me, experimentation is one of the most important parts of innovation. It's about showing curiosity, being open to new things, and "always be learning".
I’ve helped to train thousands of Googlers how to develop an innovation mindset. We see that this mindset is now more relevant than ever, as it helps to feel comfortable trying new things and seeing change as a constant. Innovation is the change that hopefully unlocks new value. And as Seneca states: "Most progress consists of the desire to make progress." Therefore, you have to have the mindset to change and the desire to make progress, accepting that nothing will stay and I cannot wait to live in the future. Because I think we will make significant progress towards many challenges.