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.

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.

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.