Creating an innovation culture

Editor’s note: This is an edited version of remarks that Lucinda Barlow delivered at the AIIA/UTS Innovation Awards ceremony on 28 February, 2014. You can see a clip of event highlights below.

Google operates in an incredibly fast moving world. Our mission is to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful, and in doing so, our business is innovation. The primary factor pushing our pace of innovation is culture.

To understand Google’s culture, you need to understand engineers. We’re an engineering-led company, started and run by engineers.  If you talk to an engineer they see the world in a different way. Where most of us accept what we see or adapt to our environments, an engineer asks simple but interesting questions. “Why does my laptop take so long to start up? Why can’t 2/3rds of the world’s population get online? Why do I need to find a parking space for my car?”. This passion for solving problems is what drives a lot of our culture and our products. 

From the top, it’s instilled in Googlers the belief that you don't change the world incrementally, you need to take big bets. It’s actually easier in some ways to execute on big ideas than small ones, because it's easier to attract great people, crazy people, to your cause. Critically, it does not matter if you fail if you attempt something that is audacious enough. Failure is a part of the learning process and should be celebrated.

A culture of innovation needs openness and inclusion. The old model of innovation happening in an R&D facility in another city no longer applies. Innovation today has to occur in every aspect of the organisation, and everyone must consider their job to be an innovator. We share knowledge and open up our systems for scrutiny and competition. This makes us work faster. This openness is at the heart of the internet and has fueled tremendous innovation and creativity at unprecedented speed. 

A culture of innovation also needs passionate, curious people. This summer 60 young, passionate university students interned at Google Australia. They worked on some of the world’s biggest software problems - how to make maps more accessible, how to make systems more secure, how to make uploading documents to the cloud faster. We look for smart, passionate and diverse generalists whose skills can be adapted in a fast moving world. Here in Australia, we have around 900 Googlers from dozens of nationalities, that includes an asylum seeker, a tennis champion, and we have a strong LGBT community. Diversity brings new perspectives, backgrounds and culture, critical to the creation of better products, services and ideas. 

Finally, innovation needs more than ideas and creativity. It needs pragmatism to bring to market and ultimately to change the world. All of Google’s successful product launches to date have had at their core a technical breakthrough, such as Maps, which added the ability to drag and drop your way around a map; Gmail offering 250x storage space; Chromebooks getting users onto the web in seconds without software updates. Technology breakthroughs need substantial investment in research, often solving problems that may seem to have little application today. Innovation means questioning assumptions about today’s world and building for tomorrow. At a global view, this means investing in the next generation of innovators. 

Australia has so much going for it - freedom, openness, a culture of consumption - we’re among the highest users of technology in the world. Our engineers today are world class but the problem is that there are way too few of them.  If we want Australia to fulfil its innovation potential, we need to invest in the next generation of innovators and we need to start early. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we made coding the second language taught in every school? I would love to see, and we should see, the next Google start up here, in a garage downunder.

Posted by Lucinda Barlow, Head of Marketing, Google Australia and New Zealand