Google VP Talks Getting Resources & Confronting the Future

By Scott Kirsner |  August 12, 2016

Ivy Ross spent the first part of her career designing eyewear and apparel for companies like Coach, Old Navy, and Calvin Klein, and overseeing product development for toys at Mattel. More recently, she joined the tech world, serving as Chief Marketing Officer at, an online retailer of prints and frames, and then moving in 2014 to Google, where she oversees Project Aura, a secretive wearable computing initiative.

We spoke to Ross earlier this month about assembling innovation teams, dealing with the sometimes “horrifying” future of your industry, and more; she’ll be among the speakers at the inaugural Harvest Summit in November.

On assembling innovation teams: “What doesn’t work is to say, ‘You, you, and you, you’re a team.’ I think creativity comes from trust. You have to be in that free zone in your mind — not the fight-or-flight zone. There are a number of things you can do to get people to that place, like learning new things together, bringing in speakers, having shared experiences, both in and out of the office. At Mattel, I brought in a professor of laughter from UCLA. When you learn new things together, you can co-create together better.”

On the role of intuition: “I believe in art and science. I’ve always believed in using both the facts and research and intuition. We only take in and hold 10 percent of information in our conscious mind. Ninety percent is stored in our unconscious. When you get an intuitive hit, that’s the unconscious working.”

On exploring the possibilities: “A lot of time companies say, ‘We sold this product, and it brought in this amount of money. Let’s do something like it. What’s the next edition?’ They invest in that, rather than exploring new possibilities. If you do that, you never get ahead of yourself.”

On the relationship with the CEO: “You have to prove yourself. It’s important to be seen as a leader that has both a right and left brain, and is not pushing things because you love them.”

On hand-offs: “When you have an advance team working on the new stuff, and they hand it off to the ‘regular team,’ the regular team doesn’t feel ownership of the work. It’s not very motivating to them. To deal with that, I would take twelve people out of their jobs every three months, and say, ‘Now you’re the advance team.’ After that, they would go back into the team they’d been part of, having had the experience of creating in a different way, and developing different skill set. Often, those people would bring ideas back to their group and they’d be the ones to execute them.”

On showing ideas to the customer: “It’s not letting the consumer dictate what you make…but you have to see through the customers’ eyes. I like to have designers go to every single focus group. And beyond focus groups, there are more tools today than ever for gathering feedback, like online surveys.”

On avoiding meeting overload and bureaucracy: “It’s up to the leader to help protect people from that. Maybe you have a design lead who doesn’t design, but goes to the meetings, gathers information, and protects the designer who is on the project creating. As a leader, you have to know how each of these creative people work best, and how to create an environment that allows creativity to happen, and not have your people in meetings and putting out fires.”

On senior executives who talk about innovation but don’t walk the walk: “I’m someone who is not afraid, in a lovely way, to confront people if what they say and what they’re doing is not the same thing, if there’s a disconnect. I don’t have patience when that is happening. It’s very hard to work in that context.”

On getting resources: “You have to learn how to back up the case you are making with facts, and sometimes go slow, taking small steps. ‘Let me show you what we can do with eight people instead of twelve.'”

On CEOs who spend a week visiting Silicon Valley: “Many times, they want to check the box that they’ve gathered some best practices, and gone to see the cool companies. ‘We get it now.’ But they don’t have the capacity to change at the level of the change that needs to happen. They may have to reorganize the whole company, and change the way they work. Instead, they’ll put a task force on it. They’re not getting it a visceral level. Change is happening constantly, and industries are being rebuilt.”

On facing the sometimes-scary future of your industry: “If you’re a hotel, putting an iPad at the check-in desk probably does not count as really rethinking the model of your business. You need the bigger vision, even if you are moving toward it in smaller leaps. You have to look at things you’re doing as a lot of quick iterations that get you to a new North Star. If you’re in hotels, you want to be getting a diverse group of people together to imagine what a hotel room is going to be. Why would you stay at a hotel, versus in an Airbnb room? The answer might be horrifying to you, but better deal with what is horrifying than deal with the alternative, which is that you’re not here in five years. Otherwise, you’re just managing what is manageable and ignoring how fast things are going to change.”