• Google is locking-in on what it made successful
  • But as technologies, and markets, change Google could be at risk of not keeping up
  • Internal processes are limiting Google’s ability to adapt quickly
  • Google needs to be better at creating and launching new projects that can expand its technology and market footprint in order to maintain long-term growth

Google has been a wild success.  From nowhere Google has emerged as one of the biggest business winners at leveraging the internet.  With that great success comes risk, and opportunity, as Larry Page resumes the CEO position this year. 

Investors hope Google keeps finding new opportunities to grow, somewhat like Apple has done by moving into new markets with new solutions.  Where Apple has built strong revenue streams from its device and app sales in multiple markets, Google hasn’t yet demonstrated that success. Despite the spectacular ramp-up in Android smartphone sales, Google hasn’t yet successfully monetized that platform – or any other.  Something like 90% of revenues and profits still come from search and its related ad sales. 

Investors have reason to fear Google might be a “one-trick pony,” similar to Dell.  Dell was wildly successful as the “supply chain management king” during the spectacular growth of PC sales.  But as PC sales growth slowed competitors matched much of Dell’s capability, and Dell stumbled trying to lower cost with such decisions as offshoring customer service.  Dell’s revenue and profit growth slowed.  Now Dell’s future growth prospects are unclear, and its value has waned, as the market has shifted toward products not offered by Dell. 

Will Google be the “search king” that didn’t move on?

When companies are successful they tend to lock-in on what made them successful.  To keep growing they have to overcome those lock-ins to do new things.  The risk is that Google can’t overcome it’s lock-ins; that internal status quo police enforce them to the point of keeping new things from flourishing into new growth markets.  That the company becomes stale as it avoids investing effectively in new technologies or solutions.

At (“What Larry Page Really Needs to Do to Return Google to its Start-up Roots“) we read from a former Google employee that there are some serious lock-ins to worry about within Google: 

  1. The launch coordination process sets up a status quo protection team that keeps things from moving forward.  When an internal expert gains this kind of power, they maintain their power by saying “no.”  The more they say no, the more power they wield.  Larry Page needs to be sure the launch team is saying “here’s how we can help you launch fast and easy” rather than “you can’t launch unless…”
  2. Hiring is managed by a group of internal recruiters.  When the people who actually manage the work don’t do recruiting, and hiring, then the recruits become filtered by staffers who have biases about what makes for a good worker.  Everything from resume screening to background reviews to appearances become filters for who gets interviewed by engineers and managers.  In the worst case staffers develop a “Google model employee” profile they expect all hires to fit.  This process systematically narrows the candidates, leading to homogeneity in hiring, a reduction in new approaches and new ways of thinking, and a less valuable, dynamic employee population.
  3. Increasingly engineers are forced to use a limited set of Google tools for development.  External, open source, tools are increasingly considered inferior – and access to resources are limited unless engineers utilize the narrow tool set which initially made Google successful. The natural outcome is “not invented here” syndrome, where externally created products and ideas are overlooked – ignored – for all the wrong reasons.  When you’re the best it’s easy to develop “NIH,” but it’s also really risky in fast moving markets like technology where someone really can have a better idea, and implement, from outside the halls of the early leader. 

These risks are very real.  Yet, in a company of Google’s size to some extent it is necessary to manage launches systematically, and to have staffers doing things like recruiting and screening.  Additionally, when you’ve developed a set of tools that create success on an enormous scale it makes sense to use them.  So the important thing for Mr. Page to do is manage these items in such a way that lock-in doesn’t keep Google from moving forward into the next new, and possibly big, market.

Google needs to be sure it is not over-managing the creation of new things.  The famous “20% rule” at Google isn’t effective as applied today.  Nobody can spend 80% of their job conforming to norms, and then expect to spend 20% “outside the box.”  Our minds don’t work that way.  Inertia takes over when we’re at 80%, and keeps us focused on doing our #1 job.  And we never find the time to really get started on the other 20%.  And it’s unrealistic to try dedicating an entire day a week to doing something different, because the “regular job” is demanding every single day.  Likewise, nobody can dedicate a week out of the month for the same reason.  As a result, even when people are encouraged to spend time on new and different things it really doesn’t happen.

Instead, Google needs a really good method for having ideas surface, and then creating dedicated teams to explore those ideas in an unbounded way.  Teams that have as their only job the requirement for exploring market needs, product opportunities, and developing solutions that generate profitable new revenue.  Five people totally dedicated to a new opportunity, especially if their success is important to their career ambitions, will make vastly more headway than 25 people working on a project when they can “find the time.”  The bigger team may have more capabilities and more specialties, but they simply don’t have the zeal, motivation or commitment to creating a success.  Failing on something that’s tertiary to your job is a lot more acceptable, especially if your primary work is going well, than failing on something to which your wholly dedicated.  Plus, when you are asked to support a project part-time you do so by reinforcing past strengths, not exploring something new.

Especially worrisome is Inc magazine’s article “Facebook Poaches Inc’s Creative Director.”  This is the fellow that created, and managed, the new opportunity labs at Google.  What will happen to those now?

These teams also must have permission to explore the solution using any and all technology, approaches and processes.  Not just the ones that made Google successful thus far.  By utilizing new technologies, which may appear less robust, less scalable and even initially less powerful, Google will have people who are testing the limits of what’s new – and identifying the technologies, products and processes that not only threaten existing Google strengths but can launch Google into the next new, big thing.  Supporting their needs to explore new solutions is critical to evolving Google and aiding its growth in very dynamic technologies and markets.

The major airlines all launched discount divisions to compete with Southwest.  Remember Song and Ted?  But these failed largely because they weren’t given permission to do whatever was necessary to win as a discount airline.  Instead they had to use existing company resources and processes – including in-place reservation systems, labor union standards, existing airports and gates – and honor existing customer loyalty programs.  With so many parameters pre-set, they had no hope of succeeding.  They lacked permission to do what was necessary because the airlines bounded what they could do.  Lock-in to what already existed killed them.

The concern is that Google today doesn’t appear to have a strong process for creating these teams that can operate in white space to develop new solutions.  Google lacks a way to get the ideas on the agenda for management discussion, rapidly create a team dedicated to the tasks, resource the teams with money and other necessary tools, and then monitor performance while simultaneously encouraging behaviors that are outside the Google norms.  Nobody appears to have the job of making sure good ideas stay inside Google, and are developed, rather than slipping outside for another company to exploit (can you say Facebook – for example?)

I’m a fan of Google, and a fan of the management approaches Larry Page and Google have openly discussed, and appear to have implemented.  Yet, success has a way of breeding the seeds of eventual failure.  Largely through the process of building strong sacred cows – such as in technology and processes for all kinds of activities that end up limiting the organization’s ability to recognize market shifts and implement changes.  Success has a way of creating staff functions that see themselves as status quo cops, dedicated to re-implementing the past rather than scouting for future requirements.  The list of technology giants that fell to market shifts are legendary – Cray, DEC, Wang, Lanier, Sybase, Netscape, Silicon Graphics and Sun Microsystems are just a few. 

It’s good to be the market leader.  But Larry Page has a tough job.  He has to manage the things that made Google the great company it is now – the things that middle management often locks in place and won’t alter – so they don’t limit Google’s future.  And he needs to make sure Google is constantly, consistently and rapidly implementing and managing teams to explore white space in order to find the next growth opportunities that keep Google vibrant for customers, employees, suppliers and investors.

View a short video on Lock-in and why businesses must evolve