Nicolas Bry: Unleashing Google Norms, Running The “Rapid Innovation” Engine

written by: Nicolas Bry

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Google has been for years an innovation champion, but innovation often gets slower as you get bigger, even at Google!

Some sour voices have started to raise, criticizing Google's "un"success in their recent product developments, and consequently its innovation processes:

  • “Google can’t keep its teams small enough, if a product becomes successful, it will get tons of resources and people thrown at it; Google can’t reduce scope, it needs to support every platform, it can’t iterate in semi-public and scale progressively; Google forces its developers to use its infrastructure, which wasn’t developed for small social projects” says Robert Scobler in his “Why Google can’t build Instagram”;
  • Google Health did not have “an innovative impact on medical informatics” because “initial user interface was clunky”, and “Google Health’s ‘records management’ value propositions weren’t compelling enough to command commitment from either health care organizations or individuals”; “Google Health failed because it betrayed the very Web 2.0 ideals that made it both a technology and market leader, i.e designing an application that gets better the more people use it” analyzes Michale Schrage in “What Google’s quiet failure says about its innovation health”.
  • “Internal processes are limiting Google’s ability to adapt quickly. The launch coordination process sets up a status quo protection team that keeps things from moving forward. Hiring is managed by a group of internal recruiters who have biases about what makes for a good worker. Increasingly engineers are forced to use a limited set of Google tools for development. External, open source, tools are increasingly considered inferior” tells us Adam Hardtung in “Google needs more innovation from Larry Page“, refering also to article “Facebook Poaches Inc’s Creative Director.”
  • Slacy’blog delivers a similar message, more engineering focused, in “What Larry Page really needs to do to return Google to its startup roots” suggesting som advices like “letting engineers what they do best”, “remembering that small, special-purpose is more agile than big, general-purpose“, “learning by making mistakes“, and “implementing an in-house incubator“.



Everything is relative: to balance the failure of Google Wave or Buzz, one can remember the massive adoption of Gmail, Google Images and Google News search services, Google Maps and Google Earth map tools, Chrome Internet browser, and the rapid uptake of the Android operating system. Not so bad for a depreciated innovation engine! A detailed comparative review is provided through the “Google vs Apple” article.

Nevertheless, the fact that Google turnover doesn’t manage to diversify, and transform its innovation in new line of business, keeps anxiety alive.

Google TV misses the point of an evolving TV market

In my field, at the crossroad of Television and Internet, the launch of Google TV has been very much criticized, especially its customer experience. I have drafted the Smart TV I was dreaming of for Christmas, and it looks different from the Google TV:

  • it’s more than ever Television, powered by the Internet content; it’s centered at the TV viewer experience: content is bubbling up to you, when Google drives you to “search”, replicating a PC interaction on a TV screen;
  • it’s designed to be social and personal, meaning the system recognizes you, it gets better the more you use it, it keeps you connected with your social networks (social networks being filters, selecting information coming to you, information sent by “friends” or experts recognized by you); it is enhancing TV social experience, while Google TV seems more a “one size fits all” device;
  • it’s building connected experiences between devices, flinging content from one device to another; it acts the fact that TV goes beyond the TV screen, with regards to the uptake of Smart Phones and Tablets, and the extension of “multitasking” behaviour.


Moreover my Smart TV is based on a philosophy of openness, mixing two different worlds, TV and the Internet, respecting both cultures, and building on both to design a playful, half-cast, and augmented TV user experience. My understanding is that Google TV philosophy is more like bringing PC interface and Internet culture on a TV, leveraging on its search capability, understating the surfing experience: Google TV looks like one world that superposes another.

Google TV did not create yet either a virtuous circle: it doesn’t provide an innovation ecosystem where “users, usage and partnerships combine to continuously create new value”, a system which attracts developers to code and add applications, “letting innovative, entrepreneurial, developers adding value without getting caught in the politics of a bigger company”. You can’t hear the Web 3.0 heart beat suggested in the “innovation operating system“.

TV advertising market is a huge opportunity for Google, and combining Google skills in monetization, with its engineering skills to design an outstanding Smart TV, is a bright idea. But TV market is complex, both traditional (“lean-back” experience for “couch potatoes”, lasting loyalty to TV shows and channel branding, Live TV consumption still slightly increasing over years, etc …), and changing at fast pace (multitasking, second screen, delinearized content, social TV, connected TV). Sometimes novelty benefits to the tradition: social TV and TV Replay are stimulating Live TV, and social media like Twitter interacts with TV narrative in popular TV shows.

To address evolving TV market, innovation can not come out of the current TV performance engine, neither can it come from a replicated Internet model. One shall embrace the whole picture to make its TV innovation become the new tradition.

Google+ illustrates a renewed innovation intent

Google+ shows a different innovation intent at Google, leveraging on a handful of nice new features such as circles, sparks, hangouts, drawing a clearly new identity compared to competitor in place, Facebook. Google+ offers the opportunity for Facebook-weary people to perform a reset, and manage their friends in closed and flexible circles, more in line with the notions of strong ties and privacy, reminding me of our work and concepts on Friendize social network, 2 years ago.

Eric Schmidt gauges Google+ success underlining that people seemed to understand that Google+ is different than Facebook.

“Circles is particularly well suited to the contact list you have in your phone, we have a somewhat different view of privacy. We tried to build a system that you could use for the relationships over time. You need identity, in the sense that you are a person, this is who you are, these are your friends and so on … The issue on the Internet is not the lack of Facebook, the issue on the Internet is the lack of identity.“

Google+ is not a typical release. As Steven Levy in “Inside Google+” puts it, it’s the result of a sustained and “urgent effort to prove Google is not only about search technology or algorithms. Google can be about human interactions and more people-centric, and grasp a huge opportunity in marrying human relationships with information, in what it calls the “interest graph”" .

Google wanted to show it has a soul : when a company starts reshaping its identity, this is good foundation for true innovation, innovation’s Graal being about renewed identity.

“No army will better fight when behind the bit” said Sun Tzu, and after Orkut, Open social, and Buzz failures, Google was bound to fight back.

It of course happened in the context of a growing attractive social market that Google can’t miss: we’re back to the the (business+belief) cocktail which makes Silicon Valley so special for innovation.

Google would benefit from a “rapid innovation” engine

At Google, innovation is still thriving! Therefore a “rapid innovation” engine made of 1) half-cast dedicated entity, 2) creative tension, and 3) innovation strategy alignment, would be easy to connect.

First and third guidelines appear quite familiar as Google is used to:

  • set-up innovation team in a few weeks, resource the teams with money and other necessary tools, “forgetting, borrowing and learning” as explained by Vijay Govindarajan;
  • anticipate roll-out through the “scalability” concept.

One could say that innovation projects are not always enough coordinated transversely, as in the case of Chrome and Android, leading to overlap and punctual inconsistency: the third guideline implementation, strategic alignment, could be optimized through a strengthened innovation portfolio management.

Let’s get “crazy”, making things outside the Google norms?

The more powerful lever is in my opinion lies in the second guideline, creative tension. Google innovation process would clearly benefit from:

  1. Diversity, interacting with the outside market of innovation in an unbounded way;
  2. Focus, speeding up knowledge circulation through short cycle design, looking for simplicity, impact, and elegance, including user observation and user led innovation, building on collective intelligence;
  3. Leadership, combining a narrow scope, a strong belief and metaphor, to inspire innovation team, and create context that has meaning for team members, and where eventually the team leads the team.

In its way, Google Creative Lab is already a living example of creative tension in action, instilling a fresh air from the outside: “know the magic, know the user, connect the two”, “explore new territories, be an Indian, hack, be a pirate, be a user”, “the faster we are, the better we become”, “make others heroes”, “freedom within the framework”, “start with hiring” are innovation rules I commit to!

Unleashing creative initiatives in a less normative way would help Google “making sure good ideas stay inside Google, and are developed, rather than slipping outside for another company to exploit”.

Let’s give it a shot: at the crossroad of culture and technology, why not produce something quirky interweaving content with information and social? Considering technology brought by Google TV, Android and Chrome, and Youtube distribution TV channels, why not use this combination as an exploratory platform to produce new ways of telling stories, interactive narratives engaging socially the audience across various media, grasping relevant information to create unlimited paths for the viewer, designing the future of TV and interactive video?

Would Facebook also need a “rapid innovation” engine?

Facebook has a social ADN, letting people bringing the value to the platform: it might work for TV as well, and Facebook just announced its social TV guide. It will give you the ability to follow what your friends are viewing, to share TV experience, and to become a new kind of TV recruiter promoter of what you like on TV.

Other believe Facebook is the social vision of its founder Marck Zuckerberg: entering Facebook is like getting in Zuckerberg’s mind.

Should Facebook succeed in social innovation, feeding its innovation at fast pace creatively by sensoring and harnessing collective intelligence, and not embracing a monolithic vision, it would demonstrate “social by design” can prove to be an impressively sharp “rapid innovation” operating system.

TV and beyond TV screen, the next duel between Google and Facebook

No doubt that Smart TV, Social TV and extended TV (beyond the TV screen), will be part of the next battlefield between the two noteworthy Silicon Valley companies. And I can’t wait to see which one will be able to reinvent its identity to design the most effective innovation value, and create the new tradition for TV.

 

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