Six Principles for Innovation

Former Google CHRO Laszlo Bock shares his secrets for fostering innovation during his opening keynote address at the 2017 HR Technology Conference in Las Vegas.

Thursday, October 12, 2017
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What's the secret to having an organization filled with productive and innovative employees? Is it creating a "skunkworks" facility in which workers can innovate to their hearts' content? What about giving lots of inspirational speeches and having outlandishly ambitious "moonshot" goals? Showering your top performers with bonuses and public praise so that others are motivated to similar levels of achievement? 

Absolutely not -- these and other approaches often don't work and can actually be counterproductive, said former Google CHRO Laszlo Bock during his opening keynote address at the 2017 HR Technology Conference in Las Vegas, titled "From Moonshots to Roofshots: What Everyone Gets Wrong About Innovation and How to Get It Right." 

Instead, a much better approach includes having a mission, trusting your employees and "massively reducing fear," Bock told the overflow crowd in the main ballroom at The Venetian Resort and Casino. 

"There are some underlying psychological and environmental things that need to happen in order to drive innovation," he said. 

Bock, who now leads a startup firm called Humu, based much of his talk on what he learned at Google, which grew from 6,000 employees to more than 72,000 during his tenure there. 

HR and corporate leaders need to do six things in order to boost and sustain innovation and productivity at their organizations, he said. 

No. 1, said Bock, is to connect people with a mission. 

"The traditional ways we tried to inspire and motivate people was with revenue targets and launch dates," he said. "But meaning is way more powerful than those things. After all, once you've hit a goal, what's left to learn?"

Bock cited work done by Wharton School Professor Adam Grant, co-author of current bestseller Option B, who found that the productivity of call-center workers whose job was to raise funds for student scholarships more than tripled when the students came to speak to the workers about how the scholarships had helped them. 

No. 2 is tapping into intrinsic motivators, he said. "Those are far more powerful than extrinsic motivators, like bonuses."

Bock related the story of Google's Founders Award, in which the company would reward employees who came up with breakthrough ideas or inventions in order to spur greater innovation.

"These awards turned out to be de-motivators," he said. "Most of the awards went to engineers, which meant at least half the company -- sales and marketing, for example -- felt left out." Even the winners weren't really motivated, said Bock, because once they'd received the award they felt there was nothing left to gain by continuing to work on the project. 

"Tying their work to money is a great way to get people to do something once and then never again," he said. 

Instead, unleashing intrinsic motivators by giving employees greater control over their work will pay continuous dividends, said Bock. 

No. 3 is massively reducing fear. "Fear of failure is a great de-motivator," he said, citing a study which found that graduates of Harvard Business School often "flatlined" in their careers within 10 years after graduation. Why? "People who are highly successful have rarely experienced failure, so when they do, they completely shut down," said Bock. 

The trick lies in getting employees to feel comfortable with failure, he said. 

"If you want learning and innovation to happen, you have to be able to tolerate and learn from failure," said Bock. At GoogleX, managers hand out a quarterly award for "biggest failure," he said. Leaders must create "psychological safety" for their teams by regularly discussing projects that failed in the past and assessing why they failed so the team can learn, he said. 

No. 4: Build a portfolio of moonshots and roof shots. 

"Moonshots," or extremely ambitious goals, are exciting and inspiring but can obscure the important work being done on "roof shots" -- comparatively mundane but vital everyday projects, said Bock. 

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"If you don't have a portfolio that includes roof shots, the people who are doing that sort of work are going to feel left out," he said. "You need to strike that balance. At every all-hands meeting I had, I would make sure to talk about things people were doing at all levels of the company -- this gave people confidence that their work matters."

No. 5, said Bock, is "know your enemy."

"[Former Google CEO] Eric Schmidt used to be the CTO of Sun Microsystems, and he said their move to set up a number of business units inside the company was the worst decision they ever made," he said. The internal units competed with each other for resources and attention to the detriment of the entire organization. 

"We decided there would be no business units within Google," said Bock. "Once you shift your focus from what's going on outside the organization to what's going on inside, it's terrible. Don't make internal comparisons." 

Finally, No. 6 is "be lucky."

"I've been very lucky in my own life," said Bock, referring to his childhood as a refugee from communist Romania. Luck arises from moments of serendipity, and these moments will occur with greater frequency when people are given the opportunity for "casual collisions" at work, he said. 

At Google, the company's physical layout was inspired by Stanford University's, in which students mingled in a series of quads, libraries and cafeterias. "Layout drives interaction," and interaction drives innovation, said Bock. Situating bathrooms, coffee stations and cafeterias in areas of a building designed to encourage people to gather will spark conversations and idea-sharing, he said. The idea for Google News was sparked when an engineer standing in line in a Google cafeteria overheard colleagues complaining about how hard it was to gather news from different sources, said Bock. 

"You increase your odds by encouraging moments of serendipity," he said. 

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