#MBOY 2019: How Google made its teams more creative

25 February 2019 -


An edited extract from the MBOTY 2019 winner for innovation and entrepreneurship

Steven S. Hoffman

Fear of failure is more prevalent in large organisations than startups. Entrepreneurs tend to be risk takers who are psychologically prepared to fail many times on their way to success. In big companies, middle managers thrive on stability and predictability. They joined a large company precisely because it provides a safe, low risk way to advance their careers and provide for their families.

It’s impossible to simply snap your fingers and change your company culture, but there are a number of practical steps you can take. The first is creating a culture of acceptance. You must not only accept failure but also stupid ideas, silly mistakes, contradictory thoughts, and wasted money. No matter how unorthodox or crazy a team member’s idea might seem, the person behind it should not be criticised. Not every project has to be approved; there needs to be a rigorous filtering and selection process. But that process should not be overly judgmental toward the individuals behind the ideas. Sometimes what appears to be an outrageous idea on the surface is actually what the company needs most.

Read a little history, and you’ll notice a pattern of nutty, unrealistic ideas turning out to be the future. Galileo Galilei was sent to the Inquisition for declaring that the Earth wasn’t flat. Charles Babbage died penniless after dreaming up the first programmable computing device. When the UNIVAC was invented, few people could imagine the possibility of a personal computer. It took hippies, hobbyists, and hackers in California to bring about the PC revolution. When Richard Stallman was evangelising the benefits of open- source software, most corporations thought it was pure madness. What company in their right mind would give away their proprietary code? That was their competitive advantage. When cell phones first came out, who would have thought they’d become music players, cameras, and personal assistants?

So when an employee comes up with an idea that seems ludicrous, you have to remember they may be on to something. It just may be a diamond in the rough. In order not to squash some of your most far-out thinkers, your corporate culture needs to accommodate all sorts of opinions and belief systems. You have to teach your employees not to criticise what’s different. You want employees with unconventional and often unspoken views to feel comfortable contributing. Those oddball nonconformists may be the ones you need in the mix if you’re going to make big leaps forward.

Changing the culture

In an attempt to improve their culture, Google set out to understand exactly what makes teams more innovative and effective. In 2012, they launched Project Aristotle with the goal of determining why some of their groups radically outperformed others. Google’s researchers reviewed a half-century of academic papers. One of these studies was conducted by psychologists from Carnegie Mellon, MIT, and Union College. In 2008, they recruited 699 people for a study on what makes teams perform well.


One experiment involved asking participants to brainstorm possible uses for a brick. Some teams came up with dozens of ingenious uses, while others only had a few. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the teams with the smartest people who came up with the best results. Some teams scoring only average on an IQ test performed far better than other teams with exceptionally intelligent members. Why was this? What made some teams so much more creative and effective than others, regardless of the individual’s abilities?

The answer was how the team members treated one another. Teams that encouraged everyone to participate scored much better. Also, teams with higher social sensitivity, meaning the members could intuit how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions, and other nonverbal cues, performed better as a group. These two factors could raise a group’s collective intelligence and productivity far above a group with more experienced and accomplished individuals.


To confirm this finding, Google studied 180 internal teams and found that the groups whose members felt the most secure speaking their minds performed best. This is what psychologists call psychological safety. The more open and accepted people feel, the better they cooperate and think together as a single unit. It’s the teams who openly debate, interrupt one another, and discuss every aspect of everything that score the highest. Using this data, Google set out to build a culture of acceptance, where everyone could participate without fear of losing status or being criticised. This has been one of their keys to successful innovation.

Make Elephants Fly: The Process of Radical Innovation by Steven S. Hoffman is the winner of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship category for CMI Management Book of the Year 2019

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