Innovation is often thought to be the life of the startup. The madcap entrepreneurs and fearless youngsters throwing themselves into changing the world, with faith and hope and a little craziness. The talk is of disrupting the industry and shaking things up. These are the people with nothing to lose, with their whole lives ahead of them, looking forward, never backward.

Big corporations are mostly seen at the other end of the spectrum. They are sometimes accused of focusing on profit and shareholders over their customers, and innovation isn’t often high on the list of priorities.

But for some global brands, they do try new things. Google is famous for search, and it has become so much more than that. But do they have too many ideas, are they having too many failures, and are they really the most innovative tech company on the planet?

A long list of success… and failures

The list of Google’s innovations, some of which have been successful but many that haven’t, is long and incredibly varied. Some of them are big changes that really don’t seem like it – new things that we assimilate into our lives as naturally as wearing a new shirt, like when Google Instant made our searches lightning quick or when Street View brought our navigation down to street level. Google Fiber, (currently in an experimental stage in Kansas City) hopes to do this with our Internet connections, bringing broadband speeds 100x today’s average.

Other Google innovations are big, visibly “new” things, that have made or will possibly make our lives completely different. Google Wave, had anyone been able to understand it, could have possibly done this. Currently, two huge Google projects in the works that could have massive implications on our lives are the driverless cars (that have now logged 300,000 miles) and the amazingly futuristic Project Glass.

Today’s gimmick…

Most of the time, today’s gimmick is really just that. But sometimes, today’s gimmick can be tomorrow’s must-have product. When Google Glass was revealed there was a lot of sneering at these stupid-looking, sci-fi specs that no one in their right mind would wear. Many people call them a gimmick, and say that they will fail.

Innovation is defined as something new or different introduced. It is the front edge of creation, of having original ideas or of finding new ways to make existing things better.

I don’t know if Project Glass will fail or not. Neither does Google. But it is trying to make this new technology succeed — and that is the crucial thing. Innovation is about looking to the future and trying to create it. It is not just letting the future happen, it is making it happen.

Having that startup spirit

When Google announced back in early 2011 that co-founder Larry Page would be replacing Eric Schmidt as CEO, he was quoted in the NY Times as saying “One of the primary goals I have is to get Google to be a big company that has the nimbleness and soul and passion and speed of a start-up.”

The principles and processes of a startup don’t usually gel with that of a global corporation like Google. The risks and rewards are completely different, and the spirit that is necessary to found a startup is not usually apparent in big companies. An established company doesn’t need the act of faith that startup founders need, the belief that their idea can be a success and make money.

But, maybe Google really is like a startup. When FastCompany‘s Chuck Salter visited the Googleplex back in 2008, he observed that “whether they’re designing search for the blind or preparing meals for their colleagues, these people feel that their work can change the world.”

Salter mentioned Google’s “creative fearlessness”, something which has become even more evident over the four years since that interview with Google’s truly forward-thinking projects such as Project Glass and the driverless cars.

Recognizing the seeds of greatness

Many people have criticised Google, saying that all their best ideas are things that they have bought, and not created. Google’s prized Android OS was in fact developed by Andy Rubin as part of the startup that he himself founded, until it was acquired by Google in 2005.

But this is innovation. The initial act of idea generation and creation is not an explicit part of being innovative. By remaining curious and forward-thinking, Google recognizes the possibilities of ideas and products such as Android, and help to make them happen. Similarly, Google innovated by improving on the email experience significantly with Gmail. Of course Google didn’t invent email, but they changed the landscape, with permanent archiving by way of then-unheard of storage quotas, priority inboxing, in-built chat, Google Voice, and more.

Innovation ≠ success

We are told that mistakes are good things. They mean we are trying new things, that we are learning and growing and pushing ourselves. Yet, when a big company like Google has a failure, they are often criticized. And Google has had a fair few failures.

Recognizing your failures is key. And Google does. As Forbes put it, CEO Larry Page has always recognized that “not every innovation can become a $1 billion company and yet a large company has to be willing to make some bets that won’t come off, and some that won’t scale successfully.”

Google continues to do this. It continues to make bets that aren’t going to scale successfully and many that fail. But every time they do this they make progress towards changing the world. They make headway on innovations that *will* pay off and will make a difference to our lives. They learn something new that will make the next innovation they try that little bit more likely to succeed.

One foot in science fiction

The tech industry, by definition, is futuristic. It is about developing new and better ways to do things, and changing the way we live our lives.

To really do this, you need to live with one foot in science fiction. With one foot in the ridiculous. Because science fiction can become science fact. Once the ideas are there, they need people willing enough to try and make those ideas a reality. This is what I see Google doing, and that is what innovation is all about, whether they succeed or not.

Google certainly has flaws. There are other companies out there, no doubt, with a more innovative mindset. There are other companies out there with a bigger treasure chest. But it may be Google’s combination of startup culture, willingness to fail and massive financial resources that allows it to be the most demonstrably innovative company in the world.

Image Credit: Antonio Zugaldia