Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Innovation and learning to love destruction

Marissa Mayer says that Google operates "like small companies inside the large company" and feels "a lot like managing a VC firm."

Jeff Bezos "encourages experimentation ... as much of it as possible" in order to "maximize invention per unit of time", "invent as many things per day per week as you can manage", and get "faster innovation".

Innovation and experimentation, that is seen as the way to get ahead. Build, create, innovate.

For this strategy to work well, companies cannot only be quick to create. They need to be quick to destroy. If something does not work, the company needs to move on quickly. Failures need to be acknowledged, all possible learning extracted, and then the product should be eliminated.

This is not what happens. Instead, unsuccessful products are left up on the site to rot. Failed experiments become useless distractions, confusing customers who are trying to dig through the options to find what they need and frustrating any customer foolish enough to try them with the obvious lack of support.

Amazon.com, for example, has 63 links on their "all product categories" page, a confusing mess that paralyzes anyone looking for a book or DVD with irrelevant and useless choices. Why do all these continue to exist? Why do Auctions and zShops hang around for years after they failed to attract an audience? Why do detail pages accumulate more and more "exciting new features" until I cannot find the customer reviews anymore under the sea of crap?

Google has 36 products and another 20 in Google Labs. It is enough that an exasperated Sergey Brin said, "I was getting lost in the sheer volume of the products that we were releasing." Admitting that "myriad product releases were confusing their users", Google is pushing its teams to develop "features, not products."

Yahoo has so many services I cannot even count them, let alone find what I want. As a now infamous internal memo pointed out, many of these products overlap with each other, perform poorly, or both. The memo pleaded for the company to find focus, asking Yahoo's management to "definitively declare what we are and what we are not."

Innovation is the process of creative destruction. Improved products destroy the failed products. Innovation is a churning cauldron of life and death.

Google and Amazon claim to be like VC firms, creating little startups within their company, but they lack the process of destruction. At these companies, old products live forever. Failures become zombies, surviving with skeleton teams and little resources, but still managing to distract the company while confusing users.

Old products never die, but they should. To innovate, it is not enough to love creation. We must also love destruction.


Andrew Hitchcock said...

Unfortunately, Amazon has let some things die; specifically, their yellow pages. I really liked BlockView, but now all that seems to be gone. Also, that means most of the reviews I've written and pictures I've uploaded are gone. Lame. When stuff disappears that I've invested time in (writing a review), that frustrates me.

jcricket73 said...

Amazon and Google are VC companies? This makes no sense.

Amazon and google are simply big companies that operate with a combination of product focused groups and more experimental R&D "labs" (groups). Most of the things that come out of product groups end up turning into products, but some do not. Some of the ideas from R&D end up turning into products, but most do not. This multi-pronged approach is no different than the way pretty much every big company maintains/encourages the growth of their product & service catalog.

I would argue that companies whose primary product rests on software (includes web software) are more prone than hardware/physical product companies to leave bits of "cruft" lying around from failed product launches or previous experiments. This is mainly because software can so easily be added on to/modified.

VC companies, on the other hand, fund individual startups, each with their own identity, that each offer a different set of customers a unique set of products & services. Sometimes there's a synergy between the products offered by companies funded by the same VC, but not regularly. There's no need for each of these startups to fit under a single "brand" umbrella; no need to use a single web site or technology platform; there's no need to design a single customer "account", etc. It's a totally different business model than google or amazon offering up experimental add-ons to their current offerings.

Failure to recognize that fact is probably what leads to more customer dissatisfaction as amazon adds/deletes features as if they didn't impact their existing customers, or their overall reputation (see Andrew's comments above).

This is the same kind of BS that crushed all the "Web 1.0" companies - "it's all different now - profits don't matter", "it's just about the eyeballs", etc. Can we have a second dot-com recession please, so google and amazon get this sort of hype crushed out of their systems? I think they'd both be better for it.

Anonymous said...

As a friend once told me, new product groups become living organisms inside a large organization, where each employee is a cell trying to guarantee the survival of the group and its own. The fight to stay alive, and only a much stronger organism can either destroy or absorb the failed one.

Anonymous said...

Well said about killing products. Although I have one question regarding that: What if there are still a few users who have come to rely on this one product that hasn't gained general acceptance like Andrew mentioned in the comment above? Should companies destroy this product or keep it alive for the few customers who have come to depend on it. Or should this be decided on a case by case basis?

John K said...

Why should the "failures" be destroyed? If they still function, what's wrong with leaving it around?

It's not like the web isn't already cluttered with useless crap. It's an infinite tent, and there's room to spare.

Besides, once something gets put out there, it can never really be erased, so why try?

Anonymous said...

Even a failure takes people and resources to support. Security holes and bugs are fixed and require a full time staff.

When projects can't be killed, small projects aren't started. Even the smallest project will require support for many years by many engineers. This means small innovative projects will never see the light of day. Maybe this is why large companies stiffle innovation.

jcricket73 said...

Why should the "failures" be destroyed? If they still function, what's wrong with leaving it around?

Every failure that remains makes it harder for customers to find the good stuff amongst the crap. Yahoo & Amazon's current web site are perfect examples of this.

It's not a question of the companies trying to "scrub" the past to eliminate evidence of their mistakes. It's just removing the projects that didn't work from their properties so customers find it easier to actually get something done.

jcricket73 said...

What do you think about amazon.com's inability to handle the customer response to a simple promotion they created? Amazon had scaling problems last Christmas too. What's going on there? If someone like amazon, who has spent billions on technology, can't handle a rush at the beginning of a holiday season, what good are "innovative new features"?

I agree with the article - why would you want to build your business on amazon's web services if the company can't handle their own promotions during busy times. Whose "jobs" do you think are going to get "priority" in situations like this? Yours or Amazons?

The relentless focus on the "new" at these companies has mainly come at the expense of the "existing". I'd like to see companies like amazon and google spend some more time focused on innovations that make their existing services faster, more reliable and easier to use.

Mike Abundo said...

On the other hand, that's the beauty of digital abundance. Products that don't attract attention, and therefore don't distract users, sit harmlessly on some server.

Anonymous said...

How do you judge a failure?

According to me failure can be relative or time based. Many more factors involved. I do not term a product failure unless I declare it so. I keep on asking this question, "Why is it not succeeding?", Is it because of
1) Launch time - If yes then I do not delete it but keep it under labs.
2) Marketing problems - All targeting and segmentation problems.

On one side it is easy to say that we should do a del to failures but it is difficult to put down failure rule book.

Overall a very informative post and I just bookmarked it.