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Google: How does your innovation garden grow?

Posted by: Helen Walters on April 23, 2009

“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.

Reader Comments

Pete Mortensen

April 23, 2009 2:36 PM

I wonder if, in Google's case, the garden metaphor is the wrong one. Maybe it's more like the jungle: chaotic and unpredictable, but also natural and serendipitous.

Which is my fairly tortuous way of saying that I believe for Google's culture, the approach Pittman describes is probably the right one. They place hundreds, if not thousands, of bets on new ideas, one of which might be the next search business.

Granted, that's a fairly risky approach. But it's that kind of risk-taking that has brought the company thus far and that gets its employees excited. If nothing else ever pays off for Google, the current investments in smart grids could prove to be a several billion-dollar business, even though it has virtually nothing to do with the core business or existing competences.

I think maybe what's scariest is that no one can say with enough confidence that "this is the business we will pioneer next year that will help us double in size within five years," not even Google. If they could, they would do it right now. Actual accidental discovery is a big, big part of innovation. We cannot underestimate the value of stumbling across things or "getting chocolate in my peanut butter," to push a metaphor too far.

If you're an organization that can tolerate that kind of random chance -- and there are a fair number that are culturally designed to drive out uncertainties, which is perfectly fine -- what's most important is creating the conditions for the most interesting possible accidents.

To my mind, all of Google's experiments that haven't made money yet aren't pricey failures, or at least, not merely pricey failures. They're ingredients for a big reaction down the road. I mean, surely something good has to come from owning a modern mobile OS, some of the world's largest data centers, nascent smart grid tech and the biggest video site on earth?

The next ten years will provide the proof, though, so this is my naive view from the mid-way point.

ralph Petrillo

August 7, 2009 9:49 AM

How does one present ideas to Google?

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