For Paul Buchheit, it was often a side project. Google’s employee number 23 would take on ideas that caught his eye and see if he could get them to work. While employed on Google Groups, he took the code and built a new email interface with an in-built search mechanism. That code became Gmail, a service that now has about 1.5 billion users.
AdSense too had been an idea that Googlers had talked about for some time—a way to place ads on users’ websites—until Buchheit put it together. “What I wrote was just a throwaway prototype, but it got people thinking because it proved that it was possible, and that it wasn’t too hard because I was able to do it in less than a day,” he told Jessica Livingston in her book Founders at Work. “After that, other people took over and did all the hard work of making it into a real product.”
Gmail, AdSense, Google News, Google Talk, the list of projects built and implemented through Google’s “20 percent time”—an idea to give employees space for innovation that Larry Page and Sergei Brin swiped from 3M—is… short.
Google is now 23 years old and its parent company, Alphabet, employs more than 135,000 people. While there’s some question about whether Googlers still have free time to work on their own projects, you might think that a company that old and that large would have managed to turn more ideas into more new products. Instead, almost a quarter of a century after its founding, Google is still dependent on search and advertising.
But surely among all of the smart, carefully vetted people who have passed through Google’s doors, many of them will have had some important ideas. Surely some of those ideas could have revolutionized the company, or at least given it some significant extra value. So why hasn’t it happened more often? Why is the clear value of a concept not enough to guarantee its success? What do companies need do to build a conveyor belt from conceptualization through implementation and construction to delivery to market?
What does it take to turn a good idea into a good product?
It’s All About the Boss
Researchers Xiaoqian Qu and Xinmei Liu recently conducted a survey among new product development teams in ten high-tech companies in China. They distributed questionnaires to 102 team leaders and 389 team members, asking them about their rates of idea generation and idea implementation. Respondents had to rank from one to seven replies to questions such as: “How well does your team produce new ideas?” and “How useful are those ideas?” They also had to rate the frequency with which the team’s creative ideas were approved for development; transformed into usable products; and have been successfully brought to market or implemented at the organization.
But the researchers also assessed the team leaders’ “performance-prove goal orientation” and “boundary-spanning strategy.” Those are complex bits of jargon but the first corresponds to an inherent motivation to be recognized and outperform others. Leaders with high levels of “performance-prove goal orientation” are competitive and want to be seen as winners.
A “boundary-spanning strategy” is made up of three elements: an ambassadorial strategy which consists of an ability to network and persuade; “technical scouting” which involves task coordination; and a “comprehensive” strategy that combines the ambassadorial strategy and task co-ordination.
The researchers were therefore able to correlate the teams’ success at generating and implementing ideas with the their leaders’ drive, management, and networking skills.
What they found wasn’t too surprising. New product teams that were led by people with high amounts of “performance-prove goal orientation”—whose leaders were competitive, organized, and driven—scored about 10 percent higher on idea implementation. Those scores were also higher for leaders with high ambassadorial activities and high task coordination.
In other words, it’s not enough for a company or a team to generate good ideas. That’s only the beginning, and it may well be the easiest part of the process. In order to turn those ideas into products that people will use—and team members can be proud of—the team needs the right leader.
They need a leader who really wants to make things happen, who builds the connections within the company to access the resources needed to develop the project, and who has the kind of task management skills that enable them to bring all the parts together.
A good idea then, is only as good as the leader of the team responsible for building that idea. Without someone capable enough of taking the idea, selling it to the rest of the company, and bringing it to life, that idea won’t happen. Creativity isn’t enough. It has to be married with drive, networking, and organization.
The results of the researchers’ survey have two implications for teams hoping to build innovative products.
Build Your Performance-Prove Goal Orientation
The first is that competitiveness in managers matters. Team leaders have to want to show off their superior abilities and demonstrate their winning ways. They can only do that if they can bring their teams’ ideas to fruition. The best leader of a creative team isn’t necessarily the most creative person in the company. It’s the one who most wants to win.
Recruiters then should be looking for signs of competitiveness in the resumes of their creative team managers. Leaders who write how much revenue they brought into their previous company or how quickly they grew their product’s userbase are good. But candidates who add that it was their measures that moved the company into the number one position or allowed the company to grow faster than any of their competitors are also demonstrating that winning matters to them. It’s not enough for them to succeed. They have to succeed more than anyone else.
A history of athletic competition could well be a good sign of that competitive spirit. Recruiters have often channeled former athletes into sales where they believe their drive to win will push them to close deals and break records. But Qu and Liu’s research suggest that that same spirit is also valuable in the creative department—not to beat competing companies in the race for customers but to beat competing teams in the race for company resources.
Companies that aren’t looking to recruit new managers though can try to sharpen the competitive spirit of their existing leaders.
Yvette Hill-Willis, a former professional athlete, has offered some tips to enable people to tap their competitive spirit.
Passion is important, she says, and so are self-belief and pride. “Be proud of the efforts and sacrifices you make on your pathway to winning,” she writes.
Focus also matters. Athletes compete at specific times and at specific events. They prepare their training so that they’re ready and at their peak during particular competitions such as a big game or an Olympic tournament. Hill-Willis recommends that people work backwards from a future event, and map out what they need to do.
“In a business context, once aware of budget deadlines, forecast commitments or new initiatives to be launched,” she says, “start by breaking down the task into relevant data source sections, allocate resource and apply timings for task completion which are prior to the due date.”
But it’s the last two tips that may be the most important in the context of a creative team. Hill-Willis argues that there are two reasons for competing: to test yourself against a competitor; and to improve your own performance. Both require measuring your growth. Sprinters need to know whether they’ve run faster than the other people at the race, and they need to know whether they’ve beaten their personal best.
So managers of creative teams should be counting the number of ideas they bring to implementation, as well as the value of those projects to the company. They need to have metrics that they can measure.
That might sound unusual for a creative team, which often sees success first in terms of the creativity of its concepts—a result that’s hard to measure. But it is possible to count the number of ideas that get turned into projects, the number of pitches that get picked up by clients, and the number of sales those ideas generate. Measuring those numbers will give a creative leader the motivation to keep pushing for the company’s resources.
And the last tip is to set high expectations. An idea might be novel and difficult and innovative, and selling it might be hard, but just as athletes have to push through their boundaries so creative team leaders have to leave their comfort zones and only return the best performance.
At the end of their careers, creative workers don’t count the number of ideas they’d had. They won’t even remember most of the ideas they had. They will remember the ideas that become products that people bought, and the ads that changed the industry.
Paul Buchheit remembers Gmail. No one remembers all of the other ideas that Google didn’t build.