Here at Google, we don't have a secret formula for innovation. But that doesn't mean Googlers' best ideas are ineffable mysteries. On the contrary, we've found they can be systematically coaxed into being and steadily improved upon. And so can yours.
Just about everyone can learn to brainstorm better. After all, it's a process like any other. And the beauty of a process is that it can be taught, learned, and shared. We've distilled our own approach into a set of three basic principles—ideas we believe can be adapted and applied at pretty much any organization, regardless of size or industry.
The way many of us brainstorm often gives the whole experience a bad rap: We typically envision a brainstorming session as an unstructured scene where wild ideas are thrown around in an ad hoc way—where anything goes. But at Google, while we’ve learned that freestyle brainstorming is the basis of innovation, it doesn't turn into substantive action without some structure.
That's why we’ve created a linear process for brainstorming new ideas and turning them into actual products:
- Know the user
- Think 10x
If that looks simple, it is—but you have to execute each step the right way.
To solve a big question, you first have to focus on the user you're solving it for—then everything else will follow. So we go out in the field and talk to people. We collect users' stories, emotions, and ideas. We learn to get comfortable with silence. We watch, listen, and empathize. You can't just understand your users' needs—you need to actually relate to them.
For example, I recently visited our customers in Canada, Brazil, and India. By observing and talking with them, I realized that what we generically call "mobility" means very different things depending on where you are. In Canada, mobility means instant collaboration from your desk, the coffee shop, or your kitchen table. In Brazil, where users spend a lot of time in commute, a great interface and voice control underpin the concept of mobility. In India, where connectivity may be a challenge in some areas, a critical aspect of mobility is working offline.
Obviously, there's no way we could've learned that without making the effort to find it out. And that's something many brainstorming sessions get wrong right off the bat—they get everyone but the user into a room together to start throwing ideas around. But that's actually Step 2, not Step 1.
Now that you're armed with information to base your brainstorm around, you can get down to thinking—but not just any thinking. The notion of "10x thinking" is pretty familiar in the business world by now, and it's at the heart of how we innovate at Google. It's about trying to improve something by 10 times rather than by 10%. One example is Project Loon, our initiative for providing internet access to everyone: An incremental solution would be to just install more fibers, whereas a "10x" idea is Project Loon—a network of balloons traveling on the edge of space, designed to connect people in rural and remote areas and help fill the hardest-to-reach gaps in coverage.
The next step is to have all participants write down their ideas individually before getting back together as a group and deciding which ones to pursue. Here's the thing to understand before you do that, though: 10x thinking sounds great in theory, but not everyone quite knows how to put it into action. So when team members reconvene with their sticky notes and the most productive part of the brainstorming process kicks into gear, make sure to follow these six guidelines:
- Build on each others’ ideas. It's easy to kill an idea, so especially in the early stages, systematically follow up ideas with, "yes, and" instead of shooting them down with "no, but" comments.
- Generate lots of ideas. At this point quantity is more important than quality, so really let loose. Time to grab a pile of sticky notes or your favorite note-taking app. The best way to have a great idea is to have many ideas.
- Write headlines. Being able to describe an idea in less than six words helps you clarify it. Imagine your favorite media outlet or magazine covers your great idea: What would you want the headline to read?
- Illustrate. Pictures are usually louder than words and harder to misinterpret.
- Think big. Invite bold, intrepid ideas—yes, this is the "10x" part—not incremental solutions. As Frederik Pferdt, Google's head of innovation and creativity, likes to say, "Just beyond crazy is fabulous!"
- Defer judgment. Don’t judge ideas in the midst of brainstorming (remember Rule #1) but let them grow so you can build on them and iterate.
Then it's time to take action. Most brainstorming sessions end with an agreement to have another meeting later, to take those ideas and work them up further. It's a common mistake. You want to strike when the iron is hot—you don't want to walk away or agree to follow talk with more talk.
Here at Google, we like to build a quick prototype pretty much right away. It doesn't have to be perfect, just a physical manifestation of an idea that's designed strictly to answer the most immediate questions and test our first assumptions about an idea that seems promising.
When it comes to details, we've found we can always fake it, so as much as possible, we like to actually make it. When you can hold your ideas in your hands, you can start to test and learn from them.
At the Googleplex in Mountain View, California, the Google Garage is a shared space where people can go and experiment, using anything from scrap materials to 3-D printers. We also host some of our Creative Skills for Innovation Labs in this space.
So we decided to offer a virtual-reality glimpse inside our creative process. All you need is your phone and Google Cardboard—or any other VR gear—for this immersive experience. But if you don’t have access to those devices, your desktop and a mouse with YouTube 360 will do just fine.
Veronique Lafargue is the global head of content strategy at Google Apps for Work. Follow her on Twitter at @vlafarg.