Sunday, October 30, 2011

Innovating Our Way Through Lunch at Tech Jam VT 2011

     Recently, just this past Saturday I ate my way through the most innovative lunch and learn session I've experienced in years.  I sat near the front of a very receptive crowd upstairs in the recently vacated Borders retail space now hosting for two days the fifth annual Tech Jam VT.
     While eating we waited for what was soon to become a very unusual and informative learning session to begin.  Even though technical difficulties delayed the start, those waiting didn't seem to mind. The added time gave us all extra moments to talk to one another and mingle a bit with nearby exhibitors.
     We were there to listen to representatives from Google and Dealer.Com to speak and share insight on "Fostering Innovation in the Workplace"and hopefully learn some things to apply to our businesses and workplaces.  Organizers designed the session to be highly interactive with panelists briefly highlighting key aspects of how innovation happens in their workplaces followed by ample time for audience Q&A.
     The panel was brought to us by the organizers of the 5th Annual Tech Jam VT.  It featured Craig Neville-Manning, engineering director for Google New York and Matt Dunne, head of community affairs for Google (a former Democratic Gubernatorial candidate from Vermont).  The panel also featured Luke Dion, senior director of product development and Mike DeCecco, director of business development both from Dealer.Com the major sponsor of TechJam.
     Craig couldn't physically be there because of family obligations and the Nor' Easter pounding at that moment the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut areas.  Craig joined us by live audio and video  feed.  It really didn't matter and actually added to the vibe in the room.
     Luke and Mike from Dealer kicked off the session by highlighting how key aspects of their fast growing company culture and workplace supported their work in a "Google Lite" manner.  Through a combination of open collaborative work areas, meeting spaces, common areas like cafes, wellness spaces and yes even a full-size indoor tennis court and an open door management style they set the stage for innovative interactions at the core of their innovative work culture.
     Through a seemingly extraordinary focus on people, place and process Dealer fosters a spirit of openness, creativity and trust.  Bright high intensity colors and a sparse modern feel of the spaces echo the dynamic pulse of the business and cheerfulness of their team based approach to work.
     As their space forms the physical backbone of the business their Life program supports the softer side by helping employees eat healthier, exercise more and take care of their minds and bodies in a more holistic people centered approach.  Similarly they said "Their work culture is set up so no one is more special than anyone else".  They practice an open door management style where management's job is to provide the best inspiration and resources to their teams and quickly "get out of the way and to let them do their jobs".

     Matt Dunne from Google followed Luke and Mike.  Matt echoed how Google seeks to foster innovation in its work culture by creating similarly designed and tricked out workplaces as (And since this is amply covered elsewhere I'll focus on other themes ) Matt shared how Google wrote into its corporate  bylaws when going through with its IPO years earlier that the company was intentionally going to do things counter to conventional wisdom and short term corporate profits.  He also illustrated how Google fosters a company culture grounded in an openness where every employee has a voice.
    As Matt said, (I paraphrase here)..." every Friday Google executives hold an all company meeting called TGIF where all of its 31,000 plus employees around the globe participate together.  Executives update those watching online on key product developments and news.  Googlers from all over write in interactively on a shared team space key questions to discuss and vote on them.  Larry, Sergei or others answer the highest voted questions until they run out of time.   Executives don't control what questions they answer."  This crowd sourcing surely reinforces Google's refreshing corporate openness focused on business issues not personalities or politics.
      Matt also shared the seminal Google Ten Things We Know to Be True, more a manifesto than a business philosophy.  I came across these a year or so ago and found them refreshing then as I did Saturday when Matt presented them.  They are:
  1. Focus on the user and all else will follow.
  2. It's best to one thing really, really well.
  3. Fast is better than slow.
  4. Democracy on the web works.
  5. You don't need to be at your desk to need an answer.
  6. You can make money without doing evil.
  7. There's always more information out there.
  8. The need for information crosses all borders.
  9. You can be serious without a suit.
  10. Great isn't good enough.
     My favorite is number 10.  As the last line of 10 says, "Ultimately, our constant dissatisfaction with they way things are becomes the driving force behind everything we do." By not striving for perfection but rather innovation through iteration and getting in the middle of big challenges Google inspires businesses large and small, global and the very local.  I know because Number 10 helped focus my business thinking over the last year on mostly one thing, working with inspiring companies to design and help implement extraordinary workplaces. 
      Craig Neville-Manning, engineering director of Google New York added onto what Matt said by sharing a how a number of years ago he had the "itch" to head back east to New York and Google said fine do it.  He started with 15 engineers then and has 1200 today.  He also said Google constantly grapples with an issue especially resonant with new hires and seasoned veterans alike. "Google is so large how do I innovate and be creative?" 
     Speaking to this, Craig spoke about how he hosts Friday Beer 4:30's or something like that.  That's where engineers and others have five minutes to demonstrate something they're working on.  (Mike from said they do something very similar. They call them Hacker's Fridays ) The point of doing this weekly is to foster creativity, brainstorming and getting ideas out in a down and dirty way.  Quick feedback is given allowing for further iterations and refinement to follow. 
     Doing this creates a near term goal allowing just enough time to rough out ideas and prototype them but not perfect them.  It also provides a time and day specific deadline. Successful ideas borne from this process swim their way up the corporate food chain making their way into products and services we see in Google's ecosystem. They move fast in creating new products and are willing to fail early and often.   
     Audience members at this point were given the opportunity to ask questions of the panelists.  A software developer asked how do separate the wheat from the chafe in this kind of process?  Luke and Mike from answered by saying they have built a process called Hacker's Fridays similar to what Craig does in New York.  
     They do work team reviews of ideas bubbling in the minds, work benches and sometimes extracurricular creative activities.  Another team member working the audience microphones added "Creativity outside of work fuels creativity at work."  Good ideas percolate from this process finding traction with managers and executives working really hard to "get out of the way." Dealer's open door policy really helps here as well. 
     I asked the panelists how from a workplace design standpoint is there any "secret sauce" to the physical design of their workspaces in supporting innovation for audience members to really hear in regards to how much to focus designing their spaces are certain way over other ways.  And also was there more of a focus on collaborative space than personal workspace?  
     Mike from said "it was really important to take away barriers to collaboration by letting people be themselves completely, lower walls within teams, have bright energetic colors to motivate a dynamic mood."  He also said "It's important to have a range of private task areas, spaces for brainstorming and creativity, some more private and others more public."  
     Matt Dunne said Google works really hard "to provide a mix of open collaborative zones, private personal hi-focus task spaces, adequate meeting and conference spaces as well as great free healthy food coupled with high energy, maybe less good for you food."  He also mentioned the Google 15 like freshman 15 in college where new hires put on weight at first with all of the free food and goodies but over time realize they need to strive for a better balance of diet, exercises and taking better care of the whole person.  And Google works really hard to support its employees by providing extraordinary resources in its facilities, benefits and building an open and highly responsive company culture. 
    Matt also said "We used to have more Segways but people started getting creative with them and got hurt.  We have lots of scooters, sleeping pods to help Googlers get needed rest."  He also mentioned the famous "20% time where engineers work on personal projects they're interested in developing either alone or with others and the other 80% of the time they do their normal jobs.  This creative freedom breeds bottom up innovation."  A Google is unafraid to prototype its products its also unafraid to try things out in its workplace and be open to different ways of working and thinking about work.  
     Another audience member asked how Google thought about the state of US education and how to get more young people into technology and engineering and in general up the ante in regards to educational excellence.  A big question with no easy answers for sure.  Craig from Google New York took this on talked about how Google and others like Computer Science approached this.  "By getting kids away from screens and doing project based learning activities requiring integrated application of science, math, language arts and the arts like holding Trebuchet catapult competitions.  They force people to think outside of the box and use a variety of kinds of knowledge."
     By doing this kids learn how to make "stuff", get their hands dirty and tackle tough to solve design problems mimicking real world challenges they'll face  in the future.  Teaching kids skills on problem solving, prototyping solutions to tough questions seeking to make inter-connections would help move the spirit of learning forward.
     Thanks for Tech Jam organizers, panelists and all those who turned out to participate in "Fostering Innovation in the Workplace."  It really was inspirational for me.  As Matt Dunne said, "Google has thousands and thousands of LEGOs all around its buildings across the world.  Googler's love to play with LEGOs and its indicative of their culture of always trying new things" and never being satisfied with "Great"." or merely good enough.  Neither should we!
     Whether its LEGOs or something else which inspire you, be sure to cultivate your creativity, spirit of innovation and your sense of wonder! And I'm so looking forward to next year's Tech Jam.  It surely won't rest on its laurels.  Hopefully what I shared here with you might be of use to you and your design and innovation journey!  Let me know what you think or if you have other stories or insight to share.



No comments: