“How many golf balls could you fit in a school bus?” This is the kind of question Google and its big tech brethren were once known for asking would-be employees. The reasoning behind the technique seemed intuitive. Ask people odd questions, see how original and well analysed their thought process was, and you’ll end up hiring creative high-performers.
The trouble is, Google has discovered that the strategy doesn’t actually predict people’s ability to do the job. Instead, it found that it’s best to ask structured questions related to what prospective employees will actually be doing – something that had been studied for many years by HR scholars.
Having learned its lesson, Google has since become a champion of evidence-based management, utilising internal data through its People Analytics department (its version of HR) and built close relationships with academics. In an impressive move, Google is now paying it forward and trying to help other organisations through its new site re:Work, which aims to “make work better” by sharing management best practice.
The re:Work site, described as a repository of Google’s experience and case studies from other organisations, is still in its infancy. But there is already a wealth of information around four key areas – hiring, management, diversity, and analytics.
The information shared throughout the site also provides valuable insight into how Google maintains a high level of creativity and innovation in its workforce. Below are some of Google’s best practices from re:Work that are known to foster innovation.
1. Predicting performance
Google is not the only organisation that has used brainteasers to identify creative individuals, but it may be the first to publicly admit that they are ineffective.
The trouble with accurately identifying and managing creative talent often stems from misconceptions of what creativity is. Many believe that creativity is something magical – a burst of insight – that cannot be developed or managed. Many years of creativity research has shown this is not the case, however.
While it may be more difficult than less complex forms of performance, there is research that shows there are methods for identifying creative performers, and a clear pattern of characteristics that can be assessed when hiring, including knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics such as personality.
2. Developing managers
When it comes to managers, Google shares another mistake it’s made – thinking that managers don’t matter, and may even kill creativity. Instead it found that, without managers, employees were left overwhelmed with distracting tasks which can actually hurt creativity.
The research supports this. Management (and its close cousin, leadership) are actually quite important to fostering creativity.
Using its people analytics tools, Google identified eight characteristics in particular that made its managers effective, and several of these have been shown to be positively related to employee creativity.
They include empowering your team and not micromanaging, being attentive to employees' success and personal well-being, establishing a shared vision and strategy for the team, and having technical expertise that allow them to adequately advise the team and evaluate creative ideas.
3. Managing diversity
Many believe that diversity is a sure-fire way to increase innovation. You might expect that by assembling a diverse mix of people, you are automatically more likely to get creative ideas from their different perspectives. While there is some evidence to suggest that diverse perspectives do help foster creativity, it can also lead to increased conflict due to misunderstanding.
At the heart of this problem is the effect of bias on the way people interact with one another. Bias can hinder individuals’ and teams’ abilities to work together, and may also lead team members and leaders to dismiss ideas based on who they came from rather than their merit – ultimately hindering the organisation’s innovation.
To help employees understand and manage their unconscious biases, Google has developed a set of “unbiasing” programs that help employees understand and manage their biases, and even provide tools for other organisations to facilitate their own unbiasing workshops. Research has shown that perspective-taking, a technique discussed in the unbiasing workshop, can be used to capitalise on the benefits of diverse perspectives and promote creativity in teams.
4. Team dynamics
A new post to Google’s re:Work blog reveals findings from a new internal study on teamwork. It revealed that it wasn’t who was on the team that mattered so much as how who was on the team interacted.
Google identified five key predictors of successful teams: psychological safety, dependability, structure and clarity, meaning of work, and impact of work. It noticed that the team dynamic found to have the most significant influence on team success was psychological safety, which is how comfortable team members are in sharing ideas and being vulnerable with one another.
Given that psychological safety has been shown to facilitate knowledge sharing, vitality, as well as learning, it is no surprise that it is consistently found to be one of the key ways in which teams as well as organisations can foster creativity.
Not only does Google’s new re:Work site provide useful information and tools for fostering innovation, its willingness to share its best practices and build a hub of ideas for ways to “make work better” is a remarkable innovation in and of itself.