I was thinking recently, with the demise of Google Wave, that it is entirely possible that Google has jumped the innovation shark. For those of you unfamiliar with the “jumped the shark” phrase, that hearkens back to a famous television show in the US. To boost ratings, a character decided to water ski and jump over a shark. The fact that the character couldn’t swim and was skiing in a leather jacket can tell you where this is headed. Everyone saw through the obvious ploy to drive ratings and the show continued to nosedive.
The question becomes then, has Google lost its edge, or is Google Wave an example of experimenting and failing forward, to bring new and better products to market?
I think it’s inevitable that small, interesting companies who tap into the global zeitgeist and grow quickly become media darlings. Firms like Facebook, Twitter and Google have been media darlings lately. The question is: are they really innovative, and as they grow can they continue to innovate? The inertia that comes with size is often a limiting factor in many firms for innovation. The larger the firm, the greater the diversity of products, the more a firm plays “defense” rather than “offense”. Will Google grow to the point where its ability to innovate is hampered or stymied by previous success? Are we actually witnessing that?
One of the best ways to evaluate an innovator is to determine not just the number of new products or services, but also consider whether or not those new products and services solve a problem or create new value. For example, Google has recently released the instant search capability, which provides results as you type. That’s perhaps interesting, but so far I haven’t found it to be valuable. Whether I get my results in three seconds after I type or “live” as I type really isn’t a big gain for me. So, here’s an “innovation” that lacks any real value proposition. Google gets points for trying to be innovative, but there’s really not much value in this innovation.
Google hasn’t capitalized on a number of its most solid applications – especially Gmail, and other firms, even Microsoft, have copied or duplicated many of the features that Google originated. Other than Google Voice, Google hasn’t created a really compelling new product or service in several years, which indicates that the pace of innovation has slowed. The question becomes – is that because there are more innovators in the space, or fewer innovation opportunities, or more overhead and bureaucracy? My personal vote is for the latter. Google’s employees didn’t suddenly get less interesting or insightful, and while there are a number of innovators few have the benefits of scale that Google has. This means that as Google has grown, it has actually become less able to create innovative new products and services.
They aren’t alone in this regard. As firms grow and their product and service portfolio get larger, their original mission and purpose gets fuzzy. They have more things to develop and support, so there’s less energy and enthusiasm for new stuff. New ideas may cannibalize existing profitable products, so the new stuff seems risky. As you get larger there’s more stuff to protect, and more process to follow. Whether you are Google or P&G, inertia and defensiveness sets in.
That doesn’t mean that Google, or P&G, or any large, distributed firm can’t be innovative. It simply means they need to be even more intentional about innovation. It needs to be part of their strategy, reinforced by their executives, and regularly reported and measured. There need to be explicit innovation goals that are regularly reviewed, and well-understood processes that people can follow. In other words, innovation has to move from a disorganized, ad-hoc initiative to a more consistent process.
Google may struggle with this transition, since it has had a fairly ad-hoc innovation methodology. Trying to lasso those folks who have had a significant amount of freedom and corral them into more defined processes may spark discontent. While the objectives and outcomes are the same, the more formal approaches may grind on those who had a lot of freedom previously. Google and its innovation teams may need to “grow up”.
Or grow out. The other model is to decide that once a product line, or business unit, reaches a certain size we spin it out to allow it some freedom out from under the corporate umbrella. W.L. Gore and others follow this model to ensure the business units and product groups don’t get too weighed down with inertia and overhead, which blocks innovation.
So, has Google jumped the innovation shark? We need to watch carefully. The executives are saying the right things about innovation, but will we continue to see interesting but not so valuable “innovations” like instant search, or will we see really valuable new products and services? Can Google scale its innovation models or will there be a backlash to try to organize innovation now that Google is a large conglomerate?
Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.