“Innovation is alive and well at Google,” said R.J. Pittman, director of product management in search properties at Google at a press conference held earlier in San Francisco earlier this week (see also my more detailed design analysis of one of the announcements, the News Timeline.) In fact, he continued: “The [innovation] garden is actually overgrown.”
Sounds good, right? Actually, it seems to me like Pittman unwittingly supplied a pithy metaphor for Google’s innovation approach: tons of activity, not much direction. After all, since when was overgrown desirable? Don’t gardeners carefully, painstakingly weed out plants that choke the growth of a pre-planned landscape of harmony and elegance?
Put another way, Google throws a ton of stuff at the wall and then watches it slip inexorably down said wall to form a somewhat mushy heap on the floor.
Yes, Google’s engineering and technical prowess is great. But where is the overarching vision? As others have written before, it’s like Google is two companies: Search (which brings in 97% of the company’s revenues, and which is ruled with rod of iron by the founders, Marissa Mayer and others) and The Rest, an unruly hodgepodge of super-talented individuals working on pet projects supported by little corporate cohesion.
A while back, CEO Eric Schmidt warned that “dark matter” projects would be eliminated as the organization looked to codify its raison d’etre. But when senior executives such as Pittman merrily confess they have no plans to make money from one of their new introductions -- as he also said at this conference, "literally we haven't thought about it" -- concerns arise as to the ability of the company to manage growth.
There’s a bigger question here, of course. How does a company ensure that its employees have the room to breathe and perhaps stumble across serendipitous moments that might redefine or even forge the still fledgling Internet industry, all while ensuring that there’s a clarity of vision that helps to guide investigation and discovery? We're always looking at how companies try to manage innovation, and there's certainly no one right way. But for all the glowing reports of Google's bottoms-up innovative culture, it seems like the company has just as many problems as the rest.
What comes next? The Bloomberg Businessweek Innovation and Design blog chronicles new tools for creativity and collaboration, innovation case studies in both the corporate and social sectors, and the new ideas that have the power to change the way things have always been done.