Guide: Foster an innovative workplace

Encourage ownership and curiosity

Research suggests that giving people the autonomy to define their roles and act on their decisions is positively related to behaviors that lead to innovation, such as communicating ideas or suggesting changes. So after setting audacious goals, it’s important to get out of the way and let employees figure out the best way to achieve them. This type of approach is reflected in Google’s manager training; a good manager at Google is one who does not micromanage. Managers are encouraged to step back and let Googlers determine how best to go about their work. Of course, good managers are always on hand to provide advice and guidance if needed.

If you are hoping your employees will come up with novel ideas, you need to trust them not only to do their jobs but also to take risks.

  • Arm people with information. From sharing upcoming product launches, to codebase access, to postmortem documentation, Googlers have access to a huge amount of information. This gives them the context and inspiration for new ideas in their work. By trusting your employees, you empower them to feel a sense of ownership of the organization and where it’s headed.
  • Encourage curiosity and solicit questions. If you’re giving employees access to information, they're going to have opinions. At Google, half of all-hands meetings are often devoted to questions and answers, where any Googler has the opportunity to ask questions or make suggestions. Google places a lot of value in a person’s natural curiosity. Studies have linked curiosity to higher levels of learning, engagement, and performance at work. Give employees regular opportunities to speak up, whether it’s building in time for questions and feedback or running an employee survey.
  • Give people an avenue to explore their ideas. This could mean removing barriers to time, money, or other resources — you can’t expect to get innovation with no investment. One way Google encourages ownership is through “20 percent time.” The original concept was that engineers were free to use 20 percent of their time to work on ideas that weren’t core to their jobs but were still related to Google’s work. A few 20 percent projects have grown into core products like Gmail and some have helped preserve historical artifacts like Google’s partnership with Yad Vashem. And while not all 20 percent projects wind up launching, employees still get the opportunity to learn new skills and collaborate with new teams. 20 percent time isn’t forced; many Googlers don’t spend their time working on side projects. However, everyone is encouraged to explore new ideas — so when the time comes to act on an idea, it isn’t frowned upon to do so.
  • Foster a culture of learning. Another way for employees to feed their curiosity is to learn. Googlers are encouraged to develop and grow their skills by taking (or teaching) one of the many courses offered internally through the employee-to-employee learning program. Googlers teach one another skills ranging from learning to code in Python to learning to pilot small planes. Fueling that inner drive can lead your employees to be more creative and better problem solvers.

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