How Google Uses The 20% Product In Strategy

Waiting for the perfect strategy is a waste of valuable time


Google has long been lauded for its approach to innovation and strategic flexibility. For a company of its size, Google’s ability to retain the creative atmosphere of a startup is the achievement to which a lot of its success is attributed. But what makes Google’s approach different to that of other, less agile incumbents? At the Women in Strategy Summit this March, Google’s Head of Strategic Planning, Venatia Taylor, presented on the tech company’s approach to strategy and its use of incomplete ideas to foster creativity.

Venatia discusses the importance of engineering culture in Google’s strategic outlook. ‘The idea that you can distil down to a fine point, that there is one big ‘aha!’, makes you feel really good as a strategist, but it kind of misses the point in some ways. What is so awesome about engineering culture - which is the opposite - is like instead of distilling down or cutting down a body of data, you’re revealing the soul of the data.

‘Because what you’re doing is grabbing lots of smaller data points, and multiple hypotheses emerge from these. So I might have five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 different insights (it doesn’t really matter how many there are), what I need to do is create a culture of insightfulness where I’m always close to the data but I’m always talking to other people… I might be right, I might be wrong, but the only way I’m going to find out is to have lots of hypotheses and test it out with other people.’

Venetia used the example of a rosé wine brand looking to find new sales avenues for its product. Finding a way to reach rosé drinkers is perhaps the most basic task for a rosé brand’s marketing team, but the solution a Google strategist found combined lateral thinking with data to good effect. The strategist in question used Google’s publicly available tool ‘Correlate’ to pick out search trends related to rosé wine. The tool will tell you that, among the people that are searching for X, these searches are correlated with Y.

As just one of the hypotheses the strategist picked out, one was a correlative search with rosé wine and variants of ‘make simple syrup’, a key ingredient in cocktail making. From this, the strategist was able to stumble upon an emerging trend of people using rosé in cocktails, considering the wine as an ingredient rather than a standalone. What Venatia explains is that, through multiple hypotheses, the team are able to come back with bigger solutions than the client originally asked for - in this case, a new way of marketing rosé wine altogether.

This was just one of the options the strategist was able to put forward to the rosé brand. Rather than spending months putting together a full strategy based on the information he had uncovered, the strategist could offer agile solutions for the brand to consider and eventually go with. It’s the lack of precision that Venatia thinks gives Google’s strategy team its strength.

For many, this may seem like a chaotic way to run a business. But, as Venatia explains, presenting multiple semi-formed options isn’t necessarily displaying a lack of leadership or direction. ‘You still have to lead. Absolutely, you have to direct, you have to kind of navigate, you have to go: ‘that one, where we think about reframing the product as an ingredient is really interesting.’ But we have to do less thinking! Less up here [sic] all the time - it’s out there, people are reacting to it, and that’s going to help us move forward.’ Essentially, by presenting semi-formed ideas (20% products) and avenues to clients or management, strategy teams avoid wasting months on unviable directions. A culture of presenting half-formed ideas encourages collaboration, risk taking, and, ultimately, innovation, even at a company as big as Google. 

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