How to Embody Google's Free Marketplace of Ideas

How do you ensure that your company keeps innovating and pushing boundaries? Organisations like Google believe in a free marketplace of ideas where the most innovative projects flourish through a kind of natural selection.

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Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin were innovators and pioneers, sure, but it’s safe to say that their company would never have grown into the technological powerhouse it is today had they remained solely responsible for innovation and new ideas within the organisation.

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No large company can enjoy sustained success on the back of a single visionary. Companies like Apple and Google launch successful products time after time, not because of the brilliance of their leaders (although having great leaders certainly helps), but because they tap into the collective ‘hive mind’ of their organisations and allow big ideas to sprout wherever there’s fertile ground.

Things like Gmail, AdSense and Android were not created by the Google founders, but, they cultivated an environment in which these brilliant ideas could take hold and grow.

The creation of the Google search engine showed that Page and Brin were great computer scientists. The creation of Gmail, Google Maps and AdSense, meanwhile, showed that they were great leaders.

“We tend to tell the heroic story of innovation. This is a story that credits a single inventor: The founder, the creator,” says LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman in an episode of his podcast Masters of Scale. “A genius has an idea. Everyone else executes on the idea. And then everyone waits for the genius to have another idea. But that’s a false story of innovation, and it breaks in at least two ways.

First, while it’s true that some people are much better at idea generation than others, it’s always better to have a number of people working on ideas simultaneously. The best idea may come from person number 89. And you can’t always predict where the good ideas will come from.

“And second, very rarely do ideas spring perfectly formed, like Athena from the brow of Zeus. To turn a good instinct into a good idea, you have to talk to a lot of smart people, and ask them for feedback and criticism. So having networks both within and outside the company to improve on ideas is key to success.”

So, it’s important to create an environment that encourages free thinking, but doing that is only really half the battle. Hire a lot of smart people and encourage them to innovate, and you’ll soon have more great ideas and projects than your organisation can reasonably pursue.

How do you choose the best opportunities, then? If you’re Google, you don’t choose at all. Instead, you let the employees choose.

Product managers within the company can make use of as many engineers as they’d like on a project, but there’s a catch: They have to convince the engineers to join the project. You can’t assign an engineer to a project at Google — instead, they have the choice to opt-in.

This is rather brilliant, since it means that the biggest teams will tend to work on the most promising projects, and employees get to focus on projects that they are genuinely interested in. Instead of a more typical top-down approach to innovation, you have an environment where ideas grow organically. It’s a marketplace of ideas based on natural selection. The great ideas grow and evolve, the less-than-stellar ones die.

Of course, there is a downside to this. Managers aren’t likely to enjoy the loss of control, and within most companies there are projects that are both crucial and boring. Who will volunteer to work on those?

Adopting this sort of approach invites a worrying amount of chaos and uncertainty, but according to people like Eric Schmidt of Google and Reed Hastings of Netflix, true innovation can only happen when you’re operating right at the ‘edge of chaos’.

You can’t create a highly structured environment, and then be surprised when creativity wilts. Innovation needs organised chaos — an environment where ideas are constantly competing, and where only the strongest ones survive.