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What If...?

Retro: German Summit of Medium-Sized Enterprises

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Booklet of summit Booklets of the summit & related events

I paused my stay in Brighton for a few days to accept the invitation to the 5. Deutscher Mittelstands-Summit. Since I am personally very interested in all of the topics discussed there, I would like to share my insights & impressions.

The summit is organised once a year by compamedia and offers the unique opportunity to take part in exciting talks and discussions concerning the German medium-sized businesses. Following the prologue, the TOP100 of the most innovative medium-sized companies and consultants will be honoured.

I would like to focus on my personal highlight of the day. Even though Ranga Yogeshwar and Prof. Dr. Dudenhöffer's discussion on Sharing Economy and Mobility of the Future was really exciting and entertaining, I would like to postpone this to a follow-up.

Innovation Management at Google

The last talk of the day was by Dr. Frederik G. Pferdt, Chief Innovation Evangelist — it's a beautiful title, isn't it? — at Google. He also teaches at the d.school for Design Thinking at Stanford University. He leads a global innovation team that helps to unleash the creativity of others and thereby increase innovation capability. How exactly this looks like on Google, he revealed in his talk.

To be honest, at first, I wasn't quite sure what to associate with the above title, especially with 'evangelist'. So it was all the more exciting when the speaker entered the stage casually with his shirt, jeans and sneakers. After just 5 minutes I knew what the title is all about. It's hard to describe, but you immediately felt inspired and motivated without being taught or convinced of anything.

Appropriate Disregard of the Impossible

In the beginning, there was an introduction to human behaviour that we rather identify mistakes than emphasise positive aspects. It is a kind of negative bias that decelerates innovation. In his opinion, everyone is creative, so that all that needs to be done is to promote new mindsets and to reduce the unconscious avoidance of negative outcomes. This simplifies the pursuit of ideas despite given risks.

Besides, questions which challenge the impossible and the status quo should be asked more frequently. Ask yourself and others 'what if...?', even if it may sound ridiculous. Do not contradict immediately, feed the ideas, encourage these projects, grant time, and see what results. Regardless of the outcome, there is a learning factor that should be emphasised. Yes, even failed projects should be rewarded to create an environment in which everyone feels safe to take certain risks.

These are both matters that we have lost since childhood. Not only do children ask more questions — even if we smirk at them — they also do not assume the negative. So they are happy and proud to share their pictures, even if they may not be perfect. How often do we withhold thoughts just because we think they're not 100% thought-out?!

Asking questions is an essential part of Google. So there is a regular meeting, just for this purpose. A team introduces a recently launched product; an occurred problem or something similar. Anyone can submit questions in advance; the most popular questions are discussed in plenary.

Booklet about Dr. Pferdt Booklet about Dr. Frederik G. Pferdt

In Touch with Google

Finally, I had the opportunity to have a 20-minute private chat with him. Because I am very interested in this topic and I have seen lots of related issues in different companies, I had a couple of questions. We talked about the problems, possible ways to tackle these, and the way Google is handling it. Maybe now you understand why I chose to focus on this talk.

My points and the resulting discussion were about the fact that, in my opinion, in addition to the lack of risk-taking, other hurdles prevent innovation.

  1. Employees want to protect their ideas, simply by not sharing, because others may contribute better approaches and it is no longer his/her project.

  2. Employees love their ideas too much and do not want to give them up. Not all of them will be a success and must be sunset — at least temporarily.

  3. I have experienced people not sharing their idea because it is not their task. According to the motto 'I am a developer, the Product folks takes care of the product, not me' or 'I already have my tasks in Jira, so who cares?!'.

So how do you create incentives to get around these hurdles or get them even out of the way? I told him at the beginning that the common attitude is, that it would hardly be a problem for Google to encourage innovation — all its employees are innovative by nature. He smiled and just said that even though innovation is part of the job postings, it still doesn't happen on its own. In addition to the incentive approaches already presented, Google offers various other ways of encouraging.

Google tries to boost the sharing of ideas and collaboration with the help of peer bonuses. This enables employees to nominate their colleagues for the peer award via a web application, with restrictions, of course. According to Frederik Pferdt, the bonus is about 200€, so it is not much compared to their salaries. However, since certificates are also made out, and other employees are also notified of this, they are very welcome. You can nominate various activities that go beyond his/her duties and are usually unnoticed by managers.

To simplify the farewell of projects/ideas, a monthly meeting takes place at which people are asked who wants to sunset their project right now. In order to create an incentive, a two-week holiday and a follow-up project are approved.

These are only two possibilities to create incentives — there are no limits to creativity. Even if not every small and medium-sized company can grant a two-week holiday, it is an interesting idea. By the way: did you know that the recently presented Google Duplex is the result of the 20% project of two developers?

Thanks for Having Me

A special thanks to compamedia and its CEO Joachim Schuble for inviting me to the summit — was a superbly exciting day with talks on the topics which I am most interested in. The trip from Brighton to Stuttgart was definitely worth it.


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