Should Google Stick to the Knitting or See What Works?

I was just doing some year end cleaning of my “to be blogged about” folder and found a couple of lingering items from a few months back. While most of that time, that would make them hopelessly outdated, these two touch on a bigger theme that is still relevant, and is aligned strategically to a book I just finished re-reading.

First, the here-to-fore neglected articles. Did-It’s Bill Wise wrote a Search Insider column on how Google wins by losing, and John Markoff at the NY Times talked about the concern over “Google Sprawl”.  Both talk about Google’s strategy of pushing into new businesses at a frantic rate, seemingly trying to reinvent everything at the same time. But they take slightly different approaches. Bill’s opinion is that the strategy works because the string of new challenges, and the many subsequent failures, continually generates buzz for Google that keeps driving it’s main revenue channel, search. The NY Times reports on recently voiced Google concerns that the myriad of new initiatives will confuse users and impact the user trust in the Google brand. It also touches on the implied conundrum that comes with Google’s goal to integrate functionality into a simple and elegant interface, making it the online Swiss Army Knife, and it’s desire to keep user data open, steering away from the Microsoft approach that landed them in hot water with the Department of Justice. The timing of both pieces was right around the Google acquisition of Youtube.

There’s a bigger piece here that seems to be missing from both viewpoints. Let’s look at Wise’s assertion first:

“By continually announcing that it’s expanding beyond search, Google gains tremendous buzz, which translates into higher stock prices, which translates into still more buzz. All that attention keeps Google top-of-mind; by being top-of-mind, Google draws more users and more loyalty towards the Google brand–which means more searchers flock to Google Search, and more searchers stick with it. And it’s through Google Search that Google actually makes its money.

All that buzz is only beneficial if the new launches don’t succeed. If Google were to successfully expand past search, users would mistrust it as a corporate giant bent on empire-building–a problem that’s certainly familiar to Microsoft. Because Google fails at really getting a hold beyond search, users don’t see any effects of Google’s empire-building, and instead only see Google as a company that’s continually on the rise.”

The problem here is that Wise is confusing strategy and a by product of an approach that’s baked right into Google’s corporate DNA. I really don’t believe Google is purposely trying to fuel the buzz machine by venturing into areas with low odds for success. I believe Google does this because they don’t know any other way. It’s part of their genetic code.

Next, John Markoff starts to uncover the clues that point to the bigger picture:

“Google executives generally answer questions about acquisitions by saying that the company is still experimenting with business plans, or by arguing that a program like Sketch-Up — a simple computer-aided design program — will have an indirect revenue impact by making the entire Google service more valuable.”

To be sure, the culture of grass roots innovation that has been scrupulously nurtured at Google is at the same time it’s greatest strength and it’s greatest challenge. And despite the fact that Google is being hailed as a pioneer, it’s ground that has been trodden before. Google is hardly the first to go down this path. Which brings me to my renewed acquaintance with Jim Collin’s and Jerry Porras’s book Built to Last.

The Google mandate that a percentage of their engineer’s time be set aside to work on new, cool and cutting edge products is a chapter that was stolen right out of 3M’s playbook. And 3M, like HP, like Sony, like Motorola and like many of the other visionary companies profiled in Built to Last, started without a business plan. These companies worried first about the who, and then worried about the what. Google is clearly following in the same footsteps.

In fact, in the book, Collins and Porras show how visionary companies often “try a lot of stuff and keep what works”. Here is a pertinent quote from the book:

“Visionary companies make some of their best moves by experimentation, trial and error, opportunism, and – quite literally – accident. What looks in retrospect like brilliant foresight and preplanning was often the result of “Let’s just try a lot of stuff and keep what works.”

Collins and Porras devote a whole chapter to the topic. They show how many iconic corporations struggled, often for years, before they found the right business model. Google has a leg up on these, as they already have a very successful cash cow that’s driving their ability to “try a lot of stuff”. And it’s one notable area where Collins and Porras offer a different viewpoint from previous seminal works, including Tom Peters’ and Bob Waterman’s In Search of Excellence. Peters and Waterman advocate “Sticking to the knitting”, warning “the odds for excellent performance seems strongly to favor those companies that stay reasonably close to the businesses they know.”  Collins and Porras counter that if that were always the case, 3M would still be trying to run mines in Minnesota, HP would be selling nothing but audio oscillators and American Express would still be a delivery service.

The challenge for Google comes in not impacting the user, as Markoff identified in his article. Ironically, it comes from Google’s initial success in search. If Google search wasn’t as successful as it is, Google would have free reign to experiment. But they have to pay scrupulous attention to the user experience. I’ve commented before that Google’s biggest obstacle as a visionary company is it’s early success.

Here, Google is faced with the Yin and Yang challenge that faces all visionary companies. How to preserve the core while at the same time stimulate progress? And this gets down to a fundamental place where Google might be veering off track. Google’s core purpose, and the one that Google search succeeds very well at, is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.  This should be what the company scrupulously protects. All of Google’s free time initiatives should be aligned to that core purpose. But Google seems to be trying to pursue a number of core items at the same time. Redefining how advertising is bought and sold (recent forays into print and radio) seems to have little to do with Google’s stated core purpose. Controlling the main intersections of the new online global community (the purchase of YouTube) might be tangentially related, but clear alignment is not apparent. If Google stuck to their initial core purpose, that gives them scads of room for growth and innovation.

If Google is going to pursue a grassroots culture of innovation, that’s admirable. If they want to try experimenting in a number of areas and see what succeeds, while at the same time pruning out the failures, they can take comfort in knowing that strategy worked well in the past, notably for 3M. But to go down this path, it’s essential that an overarching core purpose be defined and communicated clearly to each and every Google employee. Innovation has to be aligned with a common goal. And when companies try to identify more than one core purpose, they can lose direction. Google might be well advised to see how other trailblazers have handled this in the past. For example, the core purpose of 3M is to solve problems through technology. While it’s broad and all encompassing, it does provide a sense of direction for 3M employees.

If I was to identify one challenge for Google to face in 2007, it would not be the fragmenting their business model, or even defining one. It would not be nailing another surefire revenue channel. It would be deciding, clearly and unequivocally, what they want to do, communicating the hell out of that internally and by doing that, point all that formidable brainpower in one direction.

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