Google all about creativity, innovation

Stretch goals, peer assessments, comfortable environment key drivers
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/27/2013

Creativity: Stergios Anastasiadis, engineering manager at Google Canada, spoke at a recent Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) event in Toronto about how the company fosters creativity and innovation among employees. Marc Hurwitz of FlipSkills discussed creativity and the human brain while John Roberts of Herman Miller weighed in on the impact of the environment on innovation.

Every firm can afford Google’s talent approach (Strategic Capability)  

How do you measure up against Google’s prowess? (Leadership In Action)

Abandon resumés (Organizational Effectiveness)


At Google, innovation and creativity start with hiring the right people. The company’s hiring process is a science and very metrics-driven, according to Stergios Anastasia-dis, engineering manager at Google Canada in Toronto.

“We’re always looking at putting on the bus the right people. It’s important we focus and get everyone engaged in that process,” he said, speaking at a Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) event in Toronto in February. “Everything we do in hiring and interviewing is very well-structured.”

Google doesn’t review resumés. Instead, it puts candidates in a position where they actually experience the type of work they would be doing.

“From an engineering perspective, we want to know: How can they code? What do they do when they are given three, four, five problems in a day and how do they perform?” he said. “It’s important to understand if this individual, who will potentially be brought on board, can actually deliver.”

Ninety-nine per cent of the time, all the engineers who are hired produce code in their first few weeks on the job. Putting people out of their comfort zone is a characteristic inherent in the company and one employees are extremely used to, said Anastasiadis.

“We’re not here to ride a wave, we’re here to create them,” he said. “In many situations, a lot of things happen when you’re in chaos. I can’t say it’s a day-to-day experience, but we are put into those situations very frequently because everyone likes to operate in that way.”

An employee’s goals are designed to ensure she is taken out of her comfort zone.

Getting a 60 per cent score on goal achievement is “absolutely fabulous” because the goals are real stretch goals and extremely hard to achieve, said Anastasiadis.

This type of mindset is really important because it allows for failure, said Marc Hurwitz, chief insight officer and founding partner of FlipSkills, a leadership and innovation consulting firm in Waterloo, Ont.

“If you expect 100 per cent success, then you expect zero per cent failure and that’s very difficult in that kind of environment,” he said.

Peer-to-peer assessment is important at Google, which has 400 employees in Canada. The company has separated assessment from development and given the assessment piece to peers. It’s a “heck of a leap of faith” but peers can do it, said Hurwitz, also speaking at the SCNetwork event.

Managers don’t really have a say in how an employee is doing because peer-to-peer assessment has greater value to the organization, said Anastasiadis. The role of management is to chart the path of an employee’s career and assist with professional development.

“The leader now becomes someone you can really go to because they’re not the person who is assessing you, they are the person who is going to coach, facilitate, train, help you develop, to encourage, motivate, et cetera,” said Hurwitz. “It produces a really positive mood with your leader.”

Strategic goal-setting is very important for Google’s innovation and creativity. Employees get together weekly, monthly, quarterly and yearly — at the team level or organizational level — to set goals.

“It’s a completely open environment that allows everyone to go back to their desk and figure out what they’re doing and how important it is with respect to those strategic goals,” said Anastasiadis.

And the goals are always changing. It’s important to be flexible and adjust the goals as needed — which usually comes from the ground up, he said.

Encouraging intellectual property (IP) generation is very important for innovation and creativity at Google. Employees are given time to master their skills, work with other teammates from around the world and develop new products.

“It might be completely irrelevant to what Google is doing now, it might be a crazy idea, but people are encouraged to take risks and potentially get products out the door — that would never happen in a normal company,” said Anastasiadis. “We just let people do this work — it’s not that they have to do it at a certain time.”

Google has multiple rewards for IP such as status and advancement at the organization — which is important because you get what you reward, said Hurwitz.

“You have to figure out all the ways you can reward IP in your organization and encourage ideas, even if they may not work out,” he said.

The fourth major component of fostering innovation and creativity is environment. Every Google location around the world is focused on balancing work and life and having fun, said Anastasiadis.

“It makes it much easier if you know a bus is going to come and take you to work where you’re given breakfast, lunch… you don’t need to worry, ‘Where do I get my breakfast? How do I get lunch? How do I get from work to home?’”

From a facilities perspective, employees get whatever they want — no matter how crazy it might seem, he said.

“Whether they want a walking desk while they’re coding, they can get that. Do they want to get a massage two or three times a day at their seat? They get to do that. Whatever the engineers are comfortable working in is what’s important.”

Some of the employee perks at the Toronto office include a putting green, tent and swing, said John Roberts, Canadian director of architecture and design at Herman Miller, a work space design firm in Toronto.

To boost productivity, it’s important to create a space that is comfortable, safe (both psychologically and physically) and gives people end-user control, said Roberts.

The Google campuses also include a variety of deliberately designed spaces that encourage certain types of behaviour.

“The spaces are a trigger, so when I walk into a space that is a creative trigger, this is a place where I can sit and have some me time and think deeply about something because it’s set away from the rest of the world,” said Hurwitz. “But here’s a place where I can bond and do things with my peers.”

And Google does not use its facilities as a reward system — the whole office is available to the whole office, said Roberts.

“This is kind of radical in work space design because we’ve always done that — assigned spaces to people because they have done better and it’s a really hard thing to get away from,” he said. “Google has created a space that is relevant to their business, relevant to the people that work there now and relevant to the people they want to come work for them.”

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SCNetwork’s panel of thought leaders brings decades of experience from the senior ranks of Canada’s business community. Their commentary puts HR management issues into context and looks at the practical implications of proposals and policies.

Every firm can afford Google’s talent approach

By Dave Crisp

What really made the session at the recent Strategic Capability Network was not only hearing Google confirm it actually does the stuff we all read about, but hearing from Marc Hurwitz about why it works.

What emerges is a growing new picture of what’s strategically important.

Of course, the big question will always be whether companies less financially successful can afford these things but, really, the question should be: Can they afford not to try?

Google spends time and money statistically measuring aspects of its HR operations that others don’t take the time to analyze. Not only did it zero in on the best ingredients for effective leadership by assessing the differences between effective and less effective teams (try googling “Google Project Oxygen”), it has measured a key aspect of its hiring process — something others try to copy.

Intent on hiring only the best, Google would send candidates for eight or more interviews with peers and bosses and often one of the co-founders. At other companies that have tried this, candidates complain furiously they feel abused to be asked to endure so much grilling with no assurance of employment — they get turned off.

Google finally realized this and statistically showed the optimum number of interviews was four — enough to get at pretty much everything interviews can show without upsetting people.

This is the sort of focused, strategic information that makes processes more efficient, and you really don’t have to be engineers such as Google employees to realize it, nor do you need outside experts to do these surveys and calculations.

When we say HR needs to develop much better metrics, everyone agrees. But it seems everyone thinks about “big stuff” — massive projects — rather than taking key pieces of process and finding the best solutions. Moreover, we may not have to reinvent the wheel completely. My guess is most companies would find the same interview process as Google better than whatever they’re currently doing. It’s information like this and the surrounding bits — too lengthy to describe here — that make such sessions so worthwhile.

Knowing the brain science behind why multitasking doesn’t work, why we need to “sleep on it” to maximize creativity and how that can help set agendas for better meetings — and more — are some of the nuts and bolts ingredients to becoming more innovative at organizations.

Google’s stellar success should be seen as confirming ingredients we’ve been talking about, yet feeling no one is listening.

Google, for instance, provides solid security and peace of mind to employees, which is absolutely necessary for top employee performance, according to Hurwitz. Less wealthy companies can’t offer free food and bus service from home to office as elements of security. But they sure as heck can stop capriciously laying people off at the first sign of trouble and then expecting the remaining employees to be highly engaged and productive at anything except producing and updating resumés.

Can we afford all of it? No, but some of it is just a rearrangement of what we should have been doing already. When common sense isn’t all that common, good science and stats can help make it so.

Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and commentator on strategic capability for the Strategic Capability Network. He has a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson’s Bay Company where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit www.balance-and-results.com.

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How do you measure up against Google’s prowess?

By Trish Maguire

As an employer, Google has a pretty good story — which earned it bragging rights as the best company to work for, according to Fortune.

Google continues to prove to the world that engagement drives productivity and profitability. When you listen to its story, you may credit effective leadership for its success — but should that hog the spotlight?

Besides great leadership, Google is also recognized for its unconditional belief in screening, selecting and developing only high-calibre employees. That’s the Google way. It is clearly committed to, believes in, demonstrates and enforces core values that favour everyone having an opportunity to grow and learn.

Nevertheless, the real challenge facing organizations is what does — or does not — happen after top talent has been screened and selected. How constant, all-inclusive, integrated and systematic are internal processes in identifying, quantifying and developing top talent or outstanding performers? As leaders, how would you rate your talent development programs against Google?

It’s no surprise to hear that, for Google, the performance appraisal goes beyond being an HR exercise that has to be conducted by the manager with the employee. It has become an integral, value-add practice that requires everyone’s time, deep-boned commitment, total involvement and enthused accountability. Talent reviews are a peer-to-peer assessment process that extends across the global organization. Stretch assignments are established with purposeful metrics and used as core developmental opportunities where key strengths are enhanced and mastery is the goal. Everyone is held accountable for developing themselves as well as each other.

Imagine how such a deeply embedded culture might fuel creativity and innovation, how it might motivate real, critical skills development, reveal challenging learning opportunities and strengthen a captivating workplace.

We all know people will leave organizations if their work is not challenging, if their contributions are not recognized and growth opportunities are limited. Google endorses the fact that people want to be successful, competent and realize their full potential. It champions a robust, high-calibre, adaptable and engaged talent pool. It promotes a deeply committed culture that recognizes and develops people’s strengths, and encourages constant learning and extra effort.

Marc Hurwitz, chief insight officer and founding partner of FlipSkills in Waterloo, Ont., declared “Google is doing it right” at the SCNetwork event. Here are some of the vital lessons leaders can learn from the Google experience:

• cultivating a senior leadership team that believes in making the time to select and develop high-calibre talent and teams

• accepting accountability for advancing high-calibre talent

• being a positive, influential role model

• facilitating creativity and innovative performance, and driving exceptional results.

Should any of these be lacking, it’s possible that high engagement, high productivity and high profitability will be unattainable goals.

Trish Maguire is a commentator for SCNetwork on leadership in action and founding principal of Synergyx Solutions in Nobleton, Ont., focused on high-potential leadership development coaching. She has held senior leadership roles in HR and organizational development in education, manufacturing and entrepreneurial organizations and can be reached at synergyx@sympatico.ca.

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Abandon resumés

By Barbara Kofman

When it comes to creativity and innovation, Google certainly has walked the talk, as have other IT giants such as Apple, with creative work spaces, and Yahoo, calling teleworking employees back into the office.

And it was impressive to learn about how far Google has gone to ensure it continues to attract and retain the best. While other industry sectors may not relate to or see it as practical to embrace all the ways Google has built its organizational culture, many lessons can be learned.

To begin, organizations can stop relying on resumés. Google doesn’t use them at all, and for good reason. Many people use professional resumé writers to represent them, so it shouldn’t be a surprise when these individuals fail to live up to their promise.

As well, Google assesses whether candidates possess key success factors such as a positive attitude and an ability to accept feedback and deal with chaos. It no longer relies on behavioural interviews but uses real life assignments to evaluate if they can deliver. And when someone fails to meet expectations, Google gives them an opportunity to get back on track rather than reverting to dismissal.

Other lessons include:

• Understand that creativity is a skill that can be nurtured and developed, and have an environment that encourages its growth.

• When generating ideas, incubate first — analyze and critique later.

• Abandon traditional manager-led performance reviews and adopt a peer-review process, and make leaders responsible for the development of staff.

• Stop expecting 100 per cent achievement of goals — move the bar to 60 per cent to encourage risk-taking and allow for inevitable failures.

• Create stretch goals that move people out of their comfort zone, with the acknowledgement if they’re not met this time, they will be next time.

Barbara Kofman is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on organizational effectiveness and founding principal of CareerTrails, a strategic coaching and HR Solutions organization focused on enabling individuals and organizations to resolve their work-related challenges. She has held senior roles in resourcing, strategy and outplacement, and taught at the university and college level. Kofman can be reached at (416) 708-2880 or bkofman@careertrails.com.

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