Silicon Roundabout update and what we can learn from Google

“Silicon Roundabout”, the area surrounding Old Street, sits on the northern fringe of the centuries-old financial hub, the City of London. I first heard the name a couple of years ago, and visiting the area then to carry out some research, my curiosity was piqued visiting  a hack space . At the time, the area felt like the genesis of a wannabe cluster but could be described somewhat unkindly, but more accurately, as a small and motley crew of entrepreneurs and internet startups.  Last week, as I navigated my way towards Google’s Campus , the energy and buzz created by new start-ups, tech hubs, cafes and workspaces was almost tangible.  The location of Google’s building, comprised of 7-storeys of co-working space, a café and events space plus networking events and mentoring programmes, confirms that a remarkable transformation has indeed taken place. Charles Armstrong, CEO of Trampoline Systems  a company mapping the technology network, estimates that there are up to 5,000 technology-focused companies located in East London creating an ever expanding “ technology ecosystem”.

Back to the Campus

Google’s Nelson Mattos, Google VP for Product and Engineering gave a great talk “Creating a culture of do’s” which essentially was his personal take on how Google innovates. Mattos spent his former career at IBM,where the culture of innovation was totally different, and so his perspective was particularly interesting.

The nature of Google’s business means that “innovation never stops”, so in order to build a culture of innovation, there needs to be a “mission that matters”, that everyone can get behind e.g. making the internet an integral part of daily lives in Africa.

Mattos’ rules for Innovation :

  1. Hire the best – top talent drives innovation – Google attracts lots of different types e.g opera singers as well as magicians but they always hire from the best universities. The hiring process is extremely unbiased  – in Google, the manager of a department recruiting doesn’t make the final decision; the focus is on finding people who will be able to work in a team.
  2. Foster entrepreneurship – create an environment where people can pursue idea – flatten the management structure, encourage bottom-up contributions – ideas can come from anywhereThe famous “20% time” – where employees give 80% of their time to assigned  projects and have the rest to do explore other areas – can be used for a variety of objectives; own projects, career extension (new areas), mentoring, volunteering etc. As a global company, its necessary to make sure that the head office doesn’t have a monopoly on new ideas. It’s also important to allow people to deliver half-baked ideas
  3. Be transparent, open and share everything – encourage collaboration, eliminate unhealthy competition, avoid duplications, reduce politics, give everyone quarterly goals (OKR’s). Goals are self-evaluated, all published for all to see. This encourages honest assessments. Share outside (e.g Android platform), look for ways to work collaboratively.
  4. Use data instead of being subjective – use data to help you choose between options. Do test and experiments – collect data and don’t just rely on focus groups or what the marketing people think.
  5. Put users first and think about money second – if data is not conclusive. What is best to make the user want to use application? Traffic generation is critical. Focus on how you monetise this afterwards. E.g. Google has an internet bus touring India to engage with public. It will hopefully monetise this when they get access to computers.
  6. Speed does matter – people are really impatient. Speed in innovation doesn’t result in perfection first time round e.g android . Create an environment and infrastructure that enables you to move fast and:
    Launch fast and often and perfect over time. Get feedback – iterate from this e.g. Google Translate has improved dramatically since launch. Dogfooding – test products internally (tests 30,000 Googlers worldwide). Fail fast – ditch bad ideas, good ideas spread virally and Fail gracefully – if you fail, make sure you don’t leave a mess for everyone else.

Google’s constant innovation model is more likely to foster incremental rather than radical change but Google  also hives projects off into a skunkworks setup if appropriate. Under the auspices of Sergey Brin, recent examples include the driverless car which is currently being road-tested. Google’s innovation approach also highlights the differences between service and product innovation, particularly in terms of speed and cost. Nevertheless, there are key points here that are relevant to all types of organisations.

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