Friday, 28 June 2013

Fun Topic: Google 20% Part 1

I am a firm believer in Serendipity. (I must say I got that from Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan book. He's got me hooked at looking for 'free lottery ticket')

My Design Thinking coach/mentor Niels Billou never misses an opportunity to remind that 80% of projects fail. Gartner puts this # at between 70-80%. Practically, on one very specific day, 6 numbers may win you millions $ at Lotto649 or Powerball, but on any other day it's a $2 receipt for a donation (that BTW doesn't have any tax-benefit!) 

A great feature, product or idea at the wrong time or with the wrong people or the wrong audience or the wrong team fails. *Everything* has to work just right for success. 

So practically what does that mean? Recently I've been serving in a role as a surrogate Product Owner for a mobile app. I have no shortage of examples why certain great features do not get prioritized into the Sprint Backlog (SCRUM terminology for "things done next"), including but not limited to:

  • Technically not feasible at this point in time (missing necessary components, etc)
  • Time need is larger than time available (partial features are of no-use to anyone)
  • Important feature, but there is an *even more* important feature
  • Policies/Process governs another feature must be release first

This is why I believe good ideas and good features sometimes 'die on the vine'. We rarely don't want to do these things, but unfortunately in a zero-sum world, they are just 'slightly' less important than something else (at this time, for whatever reason).

Other times we may not attempt a project that may even exasperate the 80% failure rate. We may think an idea is too risky and that it may look bad if we fail. (There is a whole other discussion about what to do if you a recipe for disruptive innovation vs. simply incremental innovation... I'll postpone that for later!)

Enter the famous Google's 20% or Twitter's Hack Week school of thinking. The 'name' changes from company to company, but the principle is the same, it's out-of-band, usually self-policed, grass-roots driven initiatives where features or ideas are allowed to be executed that normally would not see the light of day (for whatever reason, possible some of the ones noted above). 

At the heart it drives innovation and creativity precisely because it works differently from the other 80% of the time or non-Hack Weeks. It gives a chance for ideas and feature that would not normally be completed using the typical process to just 'get done'.

Remember in Design Thinking we have this saying(s):
"Fail Early, Fail Often, Fail Cheaply" - AndrĂ©a Mallard (IDEO)
"Fail often to succeed sooner"- Dave Kelley (IDEO)
The 20% may seem like a lot, but it's capped (in reality, it's actually likely even smaller than 20%). It is relatively 'cheap'. This creates an environment for something that looks like the following formula:

Great Idea + High Reward      ==      Disruptive Innovation * 20% of time
             Low Risk 

Even with my group @ SAP Labs we are given approx. 10% of our time innovate much like the Google & Twitter. For my own Emerging Technologies group, I am currently 'donating' 20% (approx. 1 day a week) of my time where I work with a totally separate group of individuals from my daily tasks to the design a Local Innovation Programme where we hope will one day change how SAP interacts with local Government, Start-ups, Academia and NGO/Community Groups. Without this type of mandate, I very highly doubt something like this could happen...

Is your company investing in innovation 'serendipitously'?

For more on this topic, see part 2 here.

Hope that helps... 

Wayne Pau.

p.s. Yes I know, I know lots of people are saying Google 20% is dead. Google also clearly stated that even after the demise of Google Labs, the 20% initiative will not change. I am not saying Google and Twitter are the proto-types that everyone needs to follow. I am merely using them as well know examples to help illustrate the point. Thanks!

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