This is the Way Google & IDEO Foster Creativity

Psychological safety is the biggest distinction in innovative teams.

–Frederik Pferdt, Chief Innovation Evangelist at Google

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Google’s Chief Innovation Evangelist, Frederik Pferdt, and IDEO CEO Tim Brown recently came together for our Creative Confidence series to discuss how they foster creativity within their organizations. They touched on themes from Tim’s Leading for Creativity course, which Frederik recently completed, and the importance of inclusion, psychological safety on teams, and empowering people with confidence in their creativity and the courage to act on their ideas.

Here are highlights from our conversation:

The Importance of Psychological Safety

Curious about what makes a successful, innovative team, Google led a two-year research project with 280 teams. They found only one distinction between innovative and non-innovative teams—psychological safety. A team that has psychological safety is a team where people feel safe trying new things, openly sharing ideas, and bringing their full selves to work.

Google is working to build that psychological safety within all their teams. They’ve found it’s not so much who is on the team but how they communicate. It’s essential they have empathy and communicate openly and honestly. To promote psychological safety, leaders can be vulnerable and role model what trust looks like in a team.

Psychological danger loop: Fear of admitting mistakes > Blaming others > Less likely to share different views > Common Knowledge Effect // Psychological safety: Comfort admitting mistakes > Learning from failure > Everyone openly shares ideas > Better innovation and decision-making

Source: World Economic Forum

What Google learned from their research is similar to what developed within IDEO over the course of 30 years where trust, purpose, and impact have evolved to become central to IDEO’s culture. There’s a focus on establishing trust and building relationships by designing intentional moments, which we call rituals. For example, IDEO’s weekly tea time ritual was designed as a way to encourage collaboration and “casual collisions”—a time when people step away from what they’re working on and connect with each other. Small, consistent moments like tea time are a prime way to deepen relationships and trust over time.

Tim notes that the trust question shows up different ways. Within the team, you need to have psychological safety and optimism. And this is visible in how leaders interact with teams. How leaders responsible for teams behave will either support or destroy that psychological safety.


“It doesn’t feel like a failure if you learn in a week.”


Tim references the importance of subtle behavior shifts, especially from leaders. One recipe for unsuccessful teams is having unrealistic time constraints. Teams miss deadlines, take a long time to iterate, and leaders get impatient. The way to flip this is to find ways to get to fast iterations and fast learning. The notion of what is failure changes dramatically along the time axis. The antidote of not being allowed to fail is to learn faster. It doesn’t feel like a failure if you learn in a week. 

Measuring Progress Toward Creativity

Google has a reflective culture. Each year they review how they’re doing in terms of innovation and creativity with their Googlegeist surveys. They measure how their employees feel about innovation—do they have the right resources, the right team environment, and the right skills and mindsets? Based on the results, Google takes action to improve their 3 lowest scoring areas.

The company’s current focus (determined from previous Googlegeist surveys) is to be the most inclusive workplace on the planet. As Frederik says, diversity and inclusion lead to empathy and innovation. As an organization, the more inclusive you are the more innovative you are. Google is designing products for people all over the world, which makes it imperative for the company to understand and empathize with different global perspectives. How well you connect to people who are different from yourself significantly increases the diversity of ideas you have.


Moonshots & Beacons

Google is big on moonshot thinking, aka setting your sights on incredibly ambitious, groundbreaking innovations. Frederik considers the foundation of moonshots as asking big, bold questions. Start with a question, stay in that problem space, and understand how that problem unfolds.

What if we asked as many questions as kids? Frederik highlights the imbalance between the number of questions we ask as kids versus adults. “For example, my oldest child probably asks about 180 questions a day. But as adults, we’re maybe asking 2-4 questions a day.” In his book A More Beautiful Question, Warren Berger shares a great example of this. The simple, yet powerful question that led to the creation of the Polaroid Instant Camera—why do we have to wait for the picture—came from the four-year-old daughter of the founder of Polaroid.


“What if we asked as many questions as kids?”


In Tim’s course Leading for Creativity, he talks about the Explorer Leader. The Explorer Leader leads through questions. The greatest skill of truly creative people is to constantly ask truly interesting questions.

In addition to encouraging curiosity and asking more questions, one tactic we use at IDEO to help companies evolve their culture to be more creative is what we call beacon projects—projects designed for teams to be able to break the norms of the organization. The role of these beacon projects is to challenge tightly held assumptions and processes and illustrate that new behavior is necessary to innovate. When teams or companies are deep in their industry, seeing and experiencing change will often increase their awareness to opportunities.

What challenges are you facing in leading creative teams? Join us in Leading for Creativity to explore Tim's personal philosophy on leadership and interact with a global community of leaders who are looking to foster more creative and innovative cultures within their teams and organizations.

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