Product Inclusion Leadership: Insights from Google Chief Innovation Evangelist Frederik G. Pferdt

By Reena Jana, Head of Product Inclusion, Google | Inclusive Innovation

It’s easy to break into an optimistic smile when in conversation with Dr. Frederik G. Pferdt, Google’s playfully thought-provoking Chief Innovation Evangelist; he exudes an infectious sense of possibility and creative energy. He will tell you he firmly believes that everyone – that means you, dear reader! – holds creative superpowers within each of us. And that we are all capable of coming up with not only good, but also great, world-improving ideas.

Frederik, who holds a doctorate in Business and Human Resources Education (and other graduate degrees in Economics, Management, and Entrepreneurship) equips Googlers with methods to exercise inventiveness. Through his courses at Stanford’s, he does the same with graduate students with various majors and with people across industries and communities. While his audience represents a wide spectrum of backgrounds, they share the commonality of being curious about thinking like a designer, solving for real user needs with intention and empathy.

The key to practicing innovation, Frederik says, is to re-train ourselves to overcome the common habit of choosing to avoid the potential negative outcomes of creating something new. In other words, let’s not only accept that we may face daunting odds to succeed, but also remember that the people and organizations who can tolerate failure and face the biggest challenges or barriers to success are often those who change the world for the better, for everyone. The key to making this happen, Frederik says, is by establishing rituals to spark creativity.

Recently, we met up with Frederik, who shared tips for fostering empathetic organizational rituals that encourage inclusive innovation. This can help enable fresh and viable ideas to surface, bloom and grow. 

What does a Chief Innovation Evangelist do?

To evangelize means simply to share the “good news.” When you look at the Greek word εὐαγγέλιον (transliterated as euangelion) for “evangelize,” we get the word angel, which means messenger. So I am simply a messenger of the good news. You might ask: What good news are you spreading? My mission is to develop the capacity to innovate within everyone on this planet. And the good news: creativity exists in all of us. So I develop innovators at Google and beyond. I work to empower people to do cool things that matter to invent a desirable future we all want to live in.

What’s the first step anyone can take to tap into their creative potential?

That’s right, we are all creative. One great starting point might be to change your point of view. I look at how my 3 children ask questions and see problems that I no longer see because I've gotten used to some things. You can start asking “Why can’t it be better?” or “Why can’t it be different?” Another way is to shift your perspective and build empathy by understanding someone’s else’s perspective. This exercise always reveals interesting and surprising new insights.

What’s the connection between empathy and innovation?

For me, empathy is probably one of the most critical skills of today and the future. Empathy not only sparks new ideas, it drives innovation. It’s a necessary condition to develop meaningful innovations, which are then used by everyone. Empathy allows you to bring your experiences, your expertise, values and world views – your life, essentially, into the creative process and therefore create meaningful and useful ideas for a better future.

Without empathy, people, organizations, nations, and the whole world lose the human element, and therefore their ideas of solving the grand challenges of this world might bear the risk of failing. Human-centred innovation (what I teach at Stanford) means figuring out the question: What implications, in first order, second order, etc., does my technology, product, service have on humanity? And then starting backwards from that point of view while designing it.

The best innovation comes from one’s ability to notice. Noticing small or big problems and then solving for people’s unmet, latent, and unarticulated needs. So innovation is all about empathy and empathy is all about innovation.

For me, shifting your perspective to see how the non-obvious helps to unlock creativity, because then you see things differently and therefore can come up with different solutions. Let’s say you’re building an app for dog walkers. You’ve made a list of basic features, like a route planner and bark analyzer. Good to go, right? Not according to one of our core tenets at Google: “respect the user.” In other words, great solutions start with empathy for your users and a deep understanding of how they experience the world. So before you start designing, shift your perspective and ask a local dog walker if you can tag along for a couple of days to literally “walk in their shoes.” Next, prototype an idea you think would benefit her and her peers, then solicit their feedback.

Why is it important to bring a creative, flexible, and playful context to engineering and business?

Play allows us to feel free to do things without worrying about the consequences. In play, we feel free, free to experiment. Who wouldn’t like to work to be more playful and have fun while working on hard challenges?

We grow up learning through play, maybe even serious play. Play is how we learn about ourselves and the world. Sometimes, I wonder, why don’t we leverage this powerful tool more often when we are so called “grown-ups”? Mostly, I think it's because it’s not considered “professional” to be playful or ask (too many) questions.

Our professional society has viewed play as children’s stuff. It mostly has been associated with the creative fields or the arts. But think about it for a moment: Play can be seen as tossing aside the rules of “regular life” for a period of time in order to follow new rules or try new possibilities.

Play can exist within the structure of a formal game, but it doesn’t have to. (In fact, the words “play” and “game” are interchangeable in a number of languages, including my mother tongue, German.) When we play, we try things on and try things out, and we learn. We improvise, take on new roles, imagining the future that would happen if we possessed new capabilities or behaved differently. This allows you to navigate ambiguous, unknown areas; make new, unusual connections; and achieve goals in unforeseen, creative ways. And then we throw away what doesn’t work and build on what does. Being a little more childlike, not childish, helps us to maybe connect some dots, prototype, make mistakes, and eventually learn and make progress.

It’s a mindset of curiosity, an explorer mindset combined with play that leads us to new discoveries and breakthroughs in design, engineering or business. Here at Google, we embrace creativity, play, and collaboration. We built rituals around them as we believe that our most valuable innovations are born from serious play, effective teamwork, and giving our Googlers the freedom to explore.

So let’s all try to be more playful. Seriously!

Innovation has long been an enterprise growth strategy and investment. Can adapting an innovative mindset help individuals and communities achieve their growth goals, too?

Absolutely. I believe innovation is not a department. It’s not a method. It’s a mindset. This mindset, which can be used by everyone, can help to ask better questions, dream up more radically meaningful solutions and turn them into rapid experiments to solve problems more creatively. Eventually, it helps you to navigate the future. So innovation is not just key for growth, it helps us survive as an organization or a species. It’s also the way we can stay optimistic and confident when confronted with ambiguous challenges and not drown into our negativity bias that we all experience to an extent based on our evolution.

Can you share a story about your own innovation practices and how you applied them recently?

Recently, I went to Berlin and stayed with friends. One of them works in a camp for Syrian refugees and she asked if I’d like to spend some time there to help. Absolutely, I said. That night, as I laid awake in bed, thinking about hundreds of good ideas on how to help these 300 refugees arriving every day. By the next day I pared it down with my friend to a half dozen things that I believed would work and have impact.

After starting working in the camp, I realized none of them did. Zero. I thought families would want toys, food, and clothing. But there were piles of these items, already donated, already sorted, already ready to go. And every other idea I had wasn’t needed. I felt I had failed. And I had. Because I’d forgotten one of my own principles: focus on the user. Empathize.

This happens in our work all the time. In the rush to get a product out the door, or a service launched, we forget to ask if that is what our customers really need. We forget to step back, watch, observe, and ask questions.

So after all my ideas failed, that’s what I did. I engaged in conversations and built empathy to learn that the refugees really needed two things: Identity and Participation. Because they were only stopping overnight at the camp – they had to go to a second one the next day to register with the government – they needed to take their possessions with them. So they needed a backpack to carry their belongings and build an identity through that.

The second thing they needed was participation in society. The camp was a 45-minute drive from Berlin. People ended up sitting around all day, bored. They couldn’t explore the city, which is what many of us would do if we suddenly had to live in a new place. So we went out and bought bus and train passes for them.

This experience was a vastly important lesson for me. We can all have fantastic ideas. But without a focus on the user, even our best ideas will fail.

I took those learnings recently and founded together with my wife a kids maker space in Germany called “Tueftelei” (a word which refers to crafts and tinkering). The idea is to help kids think more with their hands, especially kids who have a difficult time communicating their ideas either because of language differences or because they lack confidence. With this maker space we invite everyone to “simply do it”: imagine something you care about and make progress on it. As we gain more empathy for our users, people everywhere, we can start designing and developing a more inclusive future, today. So let’s not waste any more time.

You’ve focused on design for accessibility. How does this approach lead to better user experiences for all people?

Imagine you’re sitting at a beautiful breakfast table with some friends. It smells great and you are starving. You can’t wait to dig in. But you are blindfolded: you don’t see what’s in front of you or where the food is. Or what others look like or what you look like. Imagine what that situation might feel like. This is the reality for many blind people in the world. So in April of last year, we put 34 people into that situation to help them develop empathy for users with special needs and design universal solutions for everyone based on this experience.

We offered a class with Stanford’s, California School for the Blind/Deaf, and our Google Accessibility team. The topic? Universal Design = Innovation x Everybody. We started with our belief: If you want to build solutions for a better world, you need to understand the people first. 1 Billion people in today’s world live with a disability.

Research shows that opportunities for people with disabilities are not the same. People with disabilities need to operate within a world that too often doesn’t consider their needs when making design decisions. We believe inclusive design is a great enabler for those with disabilities, but moreover it can be really beneficial for everyone. Learning from “extreme users” can lead to even more interesting innovation. Inclusive design demands that innovation leaders use the diversity of users and their perspectives to strengthen an innovative culture that challenges what’s possible.

Our goals were:

  • First: Changing perspective with empathy for users' perspectives
  • Second: Creating equal opportunities for everyone to participate
  • Third: Testing new accessibility concepts through rapid prototyping

In this course, we used design as a segue for inclusion to support each of these outcomes, so participants could experiment with ways to build truly accessible concepts. And the outcomes were surprising, as they really were rooted in deep understanding of the users. For example, one concept was to create machine learning algorithms that can help you recognize every item in the store without even looking.

There are so many examples. Take voice activation on mobile phones, which initially helped our blind users to navigate and access their devices. It’s now a feature which helps all users to leverage their Google Assistant and access information.

Or let’s take another example: People who have difficulties when they walk. Think about it. If we build architecture, or anything, that is more easily accessible for everyone, we all win.

Inspired by Frederik? Apply for a job at Google to create, code, design and build for everyone.

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