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It’s Tough to Be a Big Company: They Don’t Get No Respect

Om Malik recently tweeted:

I think google has no big ideas. this morning they announced a to-do-list. FGS. [For God Sake] Remember the Milk MUCH better.

This touched off a backlash from Google’s ardent supporters who beg to differ, and Om writes about it this morning.

I like Om’s definition of what he means by “big ideas”:

For me, startups and products such as Skype, Flickr and YouTube represent big ideas. Why? Because they not only redefine our notions about certain technologies, but they also change our behavior and cause massive disruption.

Google veteran Matt Cutts responds with what he thinks of as Google’s latest big ideas:

* Google is funding research on the Singularity.
* Google mapping the oceans for Google Maps.
* Google’s research into deep web/dark web.
* Gmail’s offline availability.
* Google tool to measure broadband, especially useful now that more and more broadband providers are looking to shift to a metered broadband model.
* Google’s Android Mobile Operating System.
* Google Chrome, a fast web browser with a distinct philosophy of ease-of-use and radically improved security abstractions.

Om tries hard to be magnanimous with these, but I’m sorry, none of them resonate with me as a Big Idea.  None of them are redefining or disruptive.  Many of them are just Google’s version of something somebody else did first.  Android is just another Smart Phone so far, and the iPhone or earlier the Blackberry get the prize for being redefining and disruptive.  Chrome?  Some interesting features, but as Om points out, not redefining or disruptive any more than Mozilla or other browsers.  Mapping the oceans?  Oh come on.  I’ve been able to buy ocean maps at the Monterey Aquarium for a long time now.  Sure its cool to have them online and free, but redefining?  Disruptive?  I don’t think so.  Gmail offline, not close.  Most of the blogs posts about it were along the lines of “finally, Google does what others have been doing.”

This talk gives me a strange sense of Deja Vu.  I’ve heard it all before.  The best example, back when people used to talk much about it, was Microsoft.  “What is Microsoft going to innovate?” became, “When is Microsoft going to innovate?” which ultimately became, “Microsoft doesn’t innovate.”

And there you have it.  It’s tough to be a big company.  As Rodney Dangerfield used to say, “They don’t get no respect.” 

Just one more downside of the Innovator’s Dilemma.

In Microsoft’s case, the speculation was that it was the culture.  To much command and control.  Too top down.  How can this be true for Google?  It’s just the opposite, some would say to a fault from the standpoint of economic efficiency.  They have all that 20% time available to innovate almost anything. 

Yet is isn’t happening, because real redefining and disruptive innovation is really really hard and very rare.  It can’t be scheduled.  It’s not a job and you can’t hire for it.  It’s a passion.  It’s vision not mechanical process.  It is more than just craftsmanship and building it.  It is art and creation.  It burns in the belly of whomever has the real innovative spirit.  It seldom happens with the same person more than once.  It’s problematic for large corporations to nurture it, although there are notable examples of corporations that have managed to including Xerox with PARC, IBM, and Bell Labs.  In many cases those same organizations failed to capitalize on their innovations, but at least they were making them.

What was it about their cultures that spurred innovation so unusually well?  I don’t have the recipe.  Perhaps there isn’t any recipe and those organizations had so much innovation just because they were lucky.  Lucky to have a bunch of innovators all in one place for a time.

If there were a recipe, I suspect one ingredient it would have is to avoid doing the same better.  Once a thing is mainstream, better is not innovation.  Start from things not mainstream.  Start from things perhaps not even possible in the mainstream.  Take a ridiculous amount of computing power for the day, give it to one single person, and ask how that changes the software for that computer.  You’d be looking at something similar to what happened at Xerox to create windowed user interfaces.  Or, you’d be looking at the first Macintosh, which was astonishing, but almost didn’t work it was so close to the limits of what was possible in that time.  Look for things people say can’t be done, and do them anyway. 

Forget profit.  Forget stock options.  They don’t factor into innovation in this sense.  The failure rate will be huge.  But the rewards if you succeed will also be huge.  If nothing else, you’ll have satisfied your passion.

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Dare misses the plot by ignoring “disruptive” and focusing on original.  Om is still right about Big Ideas.  Being original but not disruptive is doing something nobody cares about.  If you’re disruptive, its because your customers love you.  He labels the iPod and iPhone as not original, and therefore not Big Ideas.  But they were different enough and disruptive enough to be Big Ideas.  They were not just the same thing better.  My first iPod bore no resemblance to my Nomad MP3 player, which I liked very well at the time.  But the Nomad just wasn’t a Big Idea.

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