COVID-19 is a catalyst for people worldwide to unleash their creativity: Google’s Chief Innovation Evangelist
Frederik’s passion is to develop the capacity to innovate in everyone and he believes creativity exists in all of us. He initiated a community of over 500 Google Innovation Evangelists and is Co-founder of “The Google Garage” and creator of Google’s first Innovation Laboratory (CSI:Lab), which is used by 600+ teams/year across Alphabet/Google from YouTube, Hardware, Android to Sales and Cloud, the HR team to [x] to solve big problems creatively, generating and testing hundreds of new-to-the-world ideas, fast.
As an Adjunct Professor at Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (aka: d.school), he teaches graduate courses like: “Hacking your innovation mindset” or “Design for AI-powered futures” and feels lucky to empower students through Design Thinking so that they can invent cool things that matter in the world. He was nominated as a visiting scholar at the Center for Design Research, Stanford University and research scholar at EdLab, Columbia University where he researched the convergence of design, technology, and education.
He is founding faculty of The Google School for Leaders and currently amongst the “top ten most influential Germans in Silicon Valley” (SZ, Focus) and has developed an approach to innovation culture, creative leadership, and future technology that has been used around the world by startups, schools, nonprofits, and governments as well as Fortune 500 companies plus organizations like the UN, NASA, DFB, and NBA. He got featured in over 180 articles in international newspapers, magazines, and documentaries like FastCompany, Inc. Magazine, Times Magazine,
WirtschaftsWoche, Der Spiegel, Financial Times, Capital, Manager Magazine, brandeins, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, The Telegraph, Arte TV, VOX TV and ARD.
With his award-winning approach (New Work Award), he currently serves as Innovation Consultant to the United Nations (UN), advisor to the University Innovation Fellows, and Innovation Coach of the German Soccer Association (DFB). The “Pope of Creativity” (Focus) is founder with his wife Angela of Germany’s kids maker space: “Tüftelei”. Living in Silicon Valley, he draws inspiration from the playfulness and explorer mindsets of his three children.
Here are the edited excerpts.
The need for innovation has never been more relevant, and resilient organizations don't stop innovating. Do you see a synergy in terms of how big companies are focusing on innovation?
You are correct - everyone wanted to innovate before the pandemic, but now everyone needs to innovate. As Google’s Chief Innovation Evangelist, it is exciting to see this focus on innovation everywhere. While the pandemic has certainly brought its challenges, it has also been a catalyst for transformation and change, giving people and organizations worldwide a chance to unleash their creativity and experiment with new ways to live, learn, work and play.
However, this requires a new mindset, and my mission is to help everyone cultivate this mindset of being an innovator. At Google, we focus on bringing our three values to life every day: respect the user, respect the opportunity, and respect each other. This guides our work, shows who we want to be as an organization and how we can be more helpful through our products. For instance, we launched Teach from Anywhere to help educators with distance learning when schools were forced to close, and when we saw people seeking information about COVID-19, we quickly found ways to make it easier for them to search by developing helpful tools.
The pandemic will be an impetus for innovation in times to come, as many experts say. What have been the biggest lessons this pandemic brought to the fore in terms of the criticality of a culture of innovation?
While creativity, innovation, and experimentation have been remarkably high in various organizations and industries, the pandemic has also shed a light on what can be improved. We learned that we can turn these problems into opportunities for innovation. Looking at my own family as an example, my three children have quickly adopted the use of technology and now use Google Classroom and Google Meet with YouTube and Google Docs daily for school. They, like billions of students and educators worldwide, have started to make this vision of learning anywhere, anytime a reality, driving a necessary rethinking of education.
At Google, we also see that technology has really accelerated our mission to make information accessible, useful, and helpful to as many people as possible. In developing new ideas, we are witnessing a lot of “10x thinking” at Google - a term we use to try to improve something by 10 times rather than 10 percent, which is the heart of how we innovate. Collaboration is also key to driving innovation. Even before the pandemic, Cloud technology facilitates the collaborative and team-based work that is in Google’s DNA. We encourage the exchange of ideas, which can lead to unexpected and innovative outcomes, like our recent Google Workspace enhancements (more details in Q5). But to establish a culture of innovation, it needs trust. And establishing this trust in an organization is something everyone needs to participate in.
Do you think the pandemic can be a key innovation accelerator for companies that are trying to survive this crisis by focusing on short-term goals? Because it's challenging for them to align leadership, wisdom, and insight --and most importantly think ahead of time?
You should have a long-term vision but experiment your way forward into the future in the short-term. I would like to see more organizations beginning to envision and project their possible, desirable, and preferred futures. This means starting to invent tomorrow, today. When looking into the future, I see three things:
First, the future is ambiguous. The biggest challenge people and businesses are facing right now is not uncertainty, but ambiguity - a condition where the future is unclear, the past is of no help, and you often don't know what you don't know, so you learn as you go. We have to start learning to navigate that ambiguity.
Second, the future is approaching us, fast. At the beginning of the year, many of us probably didn't expect that schools would take place digitally and that we would shop for almost everything online or think about vacations in a completely new way. We are seeing exponential changes, and we have to adapt to these radical shifts because the only constant moving forward is change.
Third, the future is shaped by all of us. We have the opportunity to invent the future – your future, my future, our future, today. I am not in a position to give any predictions on how the future might look. Instead, my mission is to start reprogramming our way of thinking – our mindsets. Sustainable mindsets like empathy, collaboration, optimism, and even experimentation are mindsets I am practicing with people around the world to invent and try out the future, hopefully, a better future, today.
As the global economy reopens, how can companies harness the spirit of innovation to re-think how they produce their own products? Can you chart a roadmap for them?
Innovation is now in great demand and everyone wants to reimagine what a better world could look like. That's what I'm focusing on right now: helping Google and others with reimagining, creating visions of the future while developing the right mindsets that are necessary to invent this future.
Curiosity and imagination are the starting points of innovation. It's the practice of constantly wondering why things are the way they are, looking at them from different perspectives, and questioning how they might be different. Organizational cultures that encourage curiosity and allow people to imagine can generate an abundance of new, innovative ideas. This provides an environment that allows them to experiment, and move a step forward into the future. Amazing things happen when diverse people work together and build on each other's ideas and know it’s safe and included enough to take smart risks.
The pandemic highlighted a new level of urgency in terms of multiple things especially the business priorities. Can you share some insights from the most impactful initiatives that worked for Google amid this chaos?
At Google, we are laser-focused on our mission: organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful. This mission is now more relevant than ever. Listening to and understanding the challenges faced by your users and employees - and responding to these - is also critical.
For instance, the pandemic has heightened both the need and urgency for rethinking how people get things done, and work is no longer being anchored to a physical place. We wanted to bring the right tools and products to make people successful. Our product development team launched new product enhancements into Google Workspace - all developed while working remotely. Some of the enhancements include the Integrated Workspace, which brings together Gmail, Chat, Rooms, and Meet into a single integrated application.
Internally, our employees' health and safety are priorities, so our workplace team quickly set up an Information Hub to help Googlers find information about COVID-19 with details about office closures, advice on remote working, mental health resources, and more. We've seen that Googlers globally have used this page 6 million times, and it continues to be the central source of COVID-19 related information.
What's your advice for HR and talent leaders to enable their teams to reimagine their organization's culture and the future of work?
In the last months, I have been co-leading a project to reimagine work(ing) and developing the future blueprints for work(ing) for us at Google. The results are very exciting. We learned about our probable future states from our research: Work happens wherever we are, not just in the office. Automation has accelerated. Uncertainty is everywhere. The future of work focuses on people and their needs and makes the possibilities of technologies helpful. Crafting and sharing a vision - the purpose that connects the team to the future work - is now more relevant than ever.
I also believe that empathy is one of the most needed skills of the future. Leaders must learn to understand better - yes, be able to deeply understand their employees - to offer them more suitable individual solutions for how someone would like to work.
Translate your values into action, and bring your desired culture to life, use the power of rituals. Humans have innately understood that small, tangible acts done routinely can carry value and meaning for centuries. The power of rituals can be used in organizations to engender a sense of community, create togetherness in times of distance and build cohesion, ultimately helping to take an organization from good to great. Leaders need to identify values to craft powerful rituals, bring them to life in new ways, build a future-ready culture, and prepare themselves and the organization for a new normal.
How are you rethinking Google's innovation culture? What are your plans for 2021 and beyond from innovation and resiliency perspective?
Over the last 22 years, Google has made strides to shape a work culture that is different and unique. We continue to work hard to maintain our culture even as we work remotely. We know that for employees to stay agile and innovative, it starts by creating the right environment where they are given the resources, flexibility, and autonomy to drive change. Moving forward, we need to be innovative now more than ever, turning the big problems we face as humanity into possibilities or chances to create something better. Let’s all focus on developing more empathy and an experimental mindset together. We all need mindsets of openness and experimentation to try new things and a mindset of optimism to reimagine how we can shape a better tomorrow.