Fail Early, Fail Often

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How to build a company with innovation in its DNA? A key thing is to nourish a culture of accepting failure.

Making innovation a systemic process in an organization cannot be done by saying to an employee or a team, “You are in charge of innovations, and everybody else is not involved.” Innovation can’t be done by just one person or group of people. Innovation is the responsibility of everybody in a company and everyone has to feel that he or she is a part of it.

That said, there are several fundamental elements that make a company innovative.

First, you must have a mission that is so grand, so inspiring and so broad that whenever people in your company think of it, they are struck by how amazing its possibilities are. If you look at Google’s mission, for example, it is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. It is a truly inspiring mission.

Second, everybody in the organization has to feel that he or she has a voice in determining the company’s future. At Google, every employee has a voice. We are a very open organization.

The third critical part of being innovative is that you have to create a culture where all processes are transparent and information is not hidden in layers of the organization. Google is a very transparent company. Every week we have what is called Thank Google It’s Friday (TGIF) meetings attended by all colleagues. Different groups will come and do their presentations, and then Larry Page and Sergey Brin are there to answer questions every week. So we in Google don’t feel like we are separated from the top of the company and the executive leadership.

Once you have that, the rest comes down to allowing people to take risks, because innovation fundamentally is about taking risks. And of course it should be OK to fail. Larry frequently says, “Fail early, fail often.” Thus the culture of accepting failure, recognizing that failure is fundamental to innovation, is a crucial point.

At a country level, I believe it is easy to remove barriers and create a culture where it is OK to fail. If you create a culture where everyone is just trying to be comfortable, there will be no innovation. You need to make people feel uncomfortably excited all the time to create a culture that spurs innovation. Not just going crazy in different directions, but focusing, thinking so big that you are always restless because you have more to do

All these principles are universal and apply across all sectors. It is a clear misconception that innovation has to happen only in high-tech industries. By definition, innovation is the process or the result of taking a problem that exists, and finding a solution that is dramatically better than what existed before. So, it is not about making ten-percent improvements. It is about making tenfold improvements. And there are opportunities to do that in every industry, depending on the problem.

The same blueprints can be drawn up for a country willing to build innovation into its DNA. In general, for a state to be innovative – just like a company – it needs to be easy to do business with. If a country removes or dramatically lowers existing barriers to doing business, it automatically attracts people, because they want to be part of a system that allows, encourages and nurtures an entrepreneurial spirit.

Of course it can be very difficult. At Google we dedicate a lot of time and energy to maintaining our agility because that is what helps us grow and bring magic to our users everywhere. And we also spend a lot of time making sure that people we hire and promote fit the culture of innovation and entrepreneurship we want to maintain.

To cultivate innovation in a country you have to be very aware that the planet is a global marketplace. The world is getting flat, and barriers between countries are becoming blurred. As a result, one has to think of and be able to create an environment and investment climate to attract the best and the most innovative people from anywhere and everywhere. If there is somebody in some other country who figured out a way to, for example, make oil and gas exploration much easier, an energy-rich country such as Russia has to make sure that it will be this person’s first choice.

One may say an oil and gas company doesn’t need to be more efficient, at least when it comes to the drilling. But today not only does a company have to think of improving productive efficiency, it also has to consider a much bigger picture – environmental issues, for example, when it comes to fossil fuels. An oil company may be very efficient in extracting oil and gas, but can it innovate further so that it can extract in a more environmentally friendly way? There could be a lot of innovation coming from that area, although it may appear that it isn’t directly related to the core activities of the company.

The hot issue of environmental protection is not the only reason why oil and gas organizations should be looking to innovate. Another reason is that they need to be wary of losing their long-term market share to other innovators. In ten to 15 years’ time there could well be an alternative form of energy that will make traditional fossil fuels less attractive.

So, every industry has to think about innovation. And at a country level, I believe it is easy to remove barriers and create a culture where it is OK to fail. If you create a culture where everyone is just trying to be comfortable, there will be no innovation. You need to make people feel uncomfortably excited all the time to create a culture that spurs innovation. Not just going crazy in different directions, but focusing, thinking so big that you are always restless because you have more to do. And this can be done if you are an individual, a family, a company or even a country. There is no excuse but the excuse itself.

Shailesh Rao is Head of Google’s Cloud Global Business Unit, Director of new products and solutions at Google Enterprise.

This article was written in the aisles of the Open Innovations Forum, Moscow.

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