Umbrellas versus funnels, and five other lessons in innovation from Google

At the recent SXSW confab, Google employees describe how the company's innovation culture works.
Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer on

In recent years, the world has been all googly-eyed over Google. It's important to note that the online giant didn't achieve its extraordinary valuation, rising prominence, and outright dominance in online markets by building wonderful cafeterias and volleyball courts for its employees. Rather, it's the way employees are encouraged to use their heads, and pursue new ideas. The stated ideal: let nothing stand in the way of a new idea.

At the SXSW new media conference (South by Southwest Interactive) in Austin, Steve Myers of the Poynter Institute attended a session led by several Google employees, who shared at least six pointers for freeing up talent for innovation:

  • Strive for a goal, even if you don't know how to achieve it: Jonathan Perlow, a senior engineer on the Gmail team: "Either we're going to figure out how to make a great user experience or we'll die trying," Perlow said. "Most of the things we try, fail."
  • Create a culture of execution: Edward Ho, the technical lead for Google Buzz: Even in the most virtual company in the world, physical proximity made a difference. People on his team sit in an open area, "unnaturally close together," so they can communicate immediately, face-to-face. "Without leaving a chair.... No e-mails, no IMs, no meetings, just move on."
  • Be an umbrella, not a funnel: Todd Jackson, product manager for Gmail and Google Buzz: Protect your employees from organizational distractions.Stop funneling distractions down to employees, and act as an umbrella instead.
  • Empower employees to act on ideas: Todd Jackson: "Any engineer on our team is empowered to try something they feel strongly about."
  • Avoid feature creep: Arielle Reinstein, product marketing manager: Engineers at Gmail constantly balance adding new features against maintaining speed.
  • Communicate well with customers and stakeholders: As shown by Google Buzz and the privacy concerns it created, Google needs to work on this. Jackson: "We'll probably have to engage our users better on future developments like this."

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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