Leadership, Startup Advice

Google’s chief innovation evangelist explains why leaders should be asking questions (and think about how they answer them)

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien /

Google Frederik Pferdt

Google's chief innovation evangelist Frederik Pferdt.

For companies to be true disruptors, their leaders must disrupt their ways of thinking to overcome “negative bias”, according to Google’s chief innovation evangelist Frederik Pferdt.

Speaking at the Disruptive Innovation Summit 2018 in Sydney this week, Pferdt said disruptors don’t focus on things that are wrong with an idea, but notice the things that are right and then build on them. And he encouraged leaders to “truly try to look into the future optimistically”.

As adults, we tend to hide our creativity, said Pferdt. Ask an adult to draw a picture in 45 seconds and they will likely be embarrassed of what they create; ask a child to do the same and they will be proud.

“We didn’t lose our creativity,” Pferdt said, “but we lost the confidence”.

But confidence in your creative abilities is “what we need to really come up with better ideas and to share those ideas”, he added.

Similarly, the best innovators in the world have the innately child-like ability to ask questions, Pferdt said, and to “question the status quo”.

Some 20 years ago, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin asked themselves what would happen if they could get everyone the information they want whenever and wherever they wanted it, Pferdt said, and they’re “still trying to find a better answer to that question”.

Good leaders disrupt their thinking by asking questions that inspire their teams, no matter the size, without necessarily having all the answers.

“That’s how you build a vision to get the best talent to rally behind you, to find the answers to the question you posed,” Pferdt said.

If you hide the question in the first place, “I promise you nothing will happen”.

This questioning mindset should also become a part of company culture, building trust and openness into an organisation.

Again, this starts with the leadership, Pferdt said. A natural reaction to questions and new ideas can be to generate reasons as to why this is not the right question, or why the idea won’t work — why it’s too big a question, why it’s too soon, why no one would want to know the answer.

“That’s built in to ourselves,” he added.

However, if that is how leaders react, word will spread that “in your office, ideas are going to be destroyed”, and innovation will be stifled.

To change this requires changing one word of the response, Pferdt said, “from a ‘yes, but’ to a ‘yes, and’”.

Then you will “not be the person who destroys ideas, but who allows ideas to grow”, and ultimately solutions will be “bigger, faster and better”.

“The next day you’re going to have a long line of people waiting to share their idea with you, because they know that you’re going to help,” Pferdt said.

“That’s the leader you want to be.”

The difference between a team that is innovative, effective and productive and one that’s not comes down to whether they “feel safe to take a risk”. To this end, Pferdt encouraged leaders to develop a culture of innovation and a “healthy disregard for the impossible”.

“Disruptive innovation starts with disrupting our own thinking first, becoming a more optimistic, more open, more risk-taking individual, with a laser-sharp focus on the people you delight and design for, while also being respectful,” Pferdt concluded.

“That’s the best start to build a desirable future together.”

StartupSmart attended the Disruptive Innovation Summit 2018 as a guest of the event.

NOW READ: Bossing it: How to manage management when you’re growing a business

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Stephanie Palmer-Derrien

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien is a reporter at StartupSmart.

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