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Creativity or Responsibility — What Happens When an Organization Chooses Poorly?

Still-life with Apples and Oranges

Image via Wikipedia

The tension between “the creatives” and “the adults” has become more acute in many organizations over the past decade. In STM publishing, the creatives traditionally found their outlets in discrete roles — acquisitions editor, illustrator, editor, graphic designer, marketing manager, and so forth. But with the boom in digital delivery, a new breed of creatives entered the picture — programmers, interactive designers, UI experts, and the like. And, with all the change afoot, creativity of a different sort became easier to see and more imperative to pursue — new business models, open experimentation, portfolio diversification, and product development.

Slowly, the number and roles of creatives has begun to encroach on those of the adults.

One of the inspirations for open business experimentation in digital initiatives has been Google Labs. In Labs, Google product champions, engineers, and business experts could put up works in progress, nice ideas, and little experiments, let users interact with them, and see where they might go. And some things went very far indeed: Gmail, iGoogle, Google Earth, Google Scholar, Google Maps, Google Trends, Google Docs, and Google Alerts — all were clear winners that emanated from Google Labs. Some things remained piece-parts of later initiatives, like Google Video (overtaken by YouTube, but adding some features), Google Social Search (absorbed into the main search), and Similar Images (absorbed as well).

Now, Google Labs is being closed. The news was broken in a blog post entitled, “More wood behind fewer arrows,” an analogy I don’t quite get (heavier arrows that don’t go as far?):

Last week we explained that we’re prioritizing our product efforts. As part of that process, we’ve decided to wind down Google Labs. While we’ve learned a huge amount by launching very early prototypes in Labs, we believe that greater focus is crucial if we’re to make the most of the extraordinary opportunities ahead.

Scott Berkun was quick to pick up on this announcement and what it may represent. As a former Microsoft employee, Berkun has an interesting perspective on the announcement and possible repercussions for Google:

When you see phrases like ‘extraordinary opportunities’, ‘prioritizing’, ‘process’ and ‘huge amounts of learning’, in reference to something being killed, you know you’re in the fantasy land of press releases. Winding down sounds oh so graceful, like winding down a party. And mentioning Google+, their current darling, is a well-played card. And the kicker of course is the by-line:

Posted by Bill Coughran, SVP for Research and Systems Infrastructure

When a company has two levels of VPs (SVP = Senior Vice President) you know the days of free willing [sic] autonomy and entrepreneurial inspiration have faded. I remember the day at Microsoft when I learned there were over 100 VPs in the company – My mind was blown – I realized all at once how  it was no longer the company that hired me. It had more than tripled in size, and quadrupled in bureaucracy. David, as much as Microsoft was ever a David (see OS/2) , had now become a Goliath.

Ironically, Google recently got rid of Eric Schmidt, an old school executive who seemed more likely to have been the person to shutter Labs. It’s surprising to me that, being run again by its founders, Google is shuttering Labs. But maybe they are feeling like they need to be the adults now.

Meanwhile, Apple is rolling out finished products with such high design and usability standards that every other technology company feels like an also-ran. Not everything is working (“Ping,” the iTunes-based social sharing idea, is one of these), but the list of winners is long — MacBook Pro, iTunes, iPod, iTouch, iOS, iPad, and the iPhone — and the scale of the wins is truly staggering.

A recent article in the New York Times talks about the difference at Apple, which has what some call “an auteur” approach to design and product development, as contrasted with “a committee” approach like Google’s. And while this is a comfortable idea — that there is some process-derived way of discussing the differences — there is an alternative, one that preserves the notion of Apple as clearly auteur-driven and Google as something else. And this idea is that Apple is a design company while Google is an engineering company.

As creatives leave Google, their writings reflect this. As Paul Adams, a key Google player who recently moved to Facebook, writes:

Google is an engineering company, and as a researcher or designer, it’s very difficult to have your voice heard at a strategic level. Ultimately I felt that although my research formed a cornerstone of the Google social strategy, and I had correctly predicted how other products in the market would play out, I wasn’t being listened to when it came to executing that strategy. . . . Google values technology, not social science.

Another recent departure sounds a similar note:

When a company is filled with engineers, it turns to engineering to solve problems. Reduce each decision to a simple logic problem. Remove all subjectivity and just look at the data. Data in your favor? Ok, launch it. Data shows negative effects? Back to the drawing board. And that data eventually becomes a crutch for every decision, paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions.

Leaps of faith are important for any company seeking to break new ground. The recent launch of Google+ seems doomed precisely because it is an engineering answer to social media — a better backbone, but one that doesn’t inspire or move the proverbial ball. In fact, people I know are finding it’s Circles approach a waste of energy. After all, we’ve already been trained by Facebook to have a nice social media persona and gained the ability to tailor content for a broad audience.

Google’s “adults” are its engineers, something its founders certainly identify with. And they are taking over from the creatives. Meanwhile, Apple continues to be led by creatives who set ambitious goals for engineers, goals driven by passion, vision, and audacity. And the erosion of Google’s creative workforce is already underway.

When a creative environment crumbles for whatever reason, there is a period of productive latency — the adults who are left execute on the ideas still in the system, and they look creative for a time. But then, the well runs dry, and stagnation creeps back in. Berkun writes of this, as well:

The question is whether the people working at the old company are the right ones to keep working at the new company formed by success of the old. . . . Google, despite its size and success, still has a better path for ideas than most corporations in the world, but for anyone who has been there too long, that might not be good enough.

In another, related blog post from 2006, Berkun tackles the notion of creating an innovation group:

Hypothesis: if ever a VP of something is created, say a VP of quality or a VP of sarcasm, it means two things:

  1. The company is failing at that activity.
  2. The company will continue to fail at that activity until that VP is no longer needed.

The first point is based on the fact that no innovative company in history, from amazon.com, to Google, to Apple, began with an innovation team. When companies start they are by definition creating new things and inventing ways to solve problems. Innovation in these early efforts isn’t prevented by the lack of a VP in charge of it. Finding new ideas happens simply because people need those new ideas to do their jobs. Just as there’s no VP of breathing, eating or e-mailing, people do these things just fine, as needed, to get through the day.

Innovation is something every organization needs to be involved in constantly. To me, this means “the adults” are actually the enemy of business health and vitality in the end. Not making a leap, not taking a risk, not pursuing a potentially disruptive strategy — these are what the adults recommend and manage to enforce. And those are exactly the kinds of things that lead to crises in organizations.

If the creatives aren’t the adults in your organization, what does that say about your chances to adapt and lead?

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About Kent Anderson

I am the Publisher at AAAS/Science. Previously, I have worked as CEO/Publisher of the STRIATUS/JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Discussion

12 thoughts on “Creativity or Responsibility — What Happens When an Organization Chooses Poorly?

  1. Fascinating ideas. Creatives are of course, adults, and often very aware of resources and finances, having had to struggle up the ranks of society financing their own projects. Never met a creative who wasn’t working on something else on the side.

    (On a smaller note, why mention “image from Wikipedia” without mentioning who created the image? I know it’s open source to publish a Cezanne, [it is Cezanne, right?] but why not say so if you take the time to say “Image from Wikipedia”? Attributing images online is another way of respecting creatives, even dead ones.)

    Posted by Glendon Mellow | Jul 25, 2011, 10:16 am
    • That’s a funny thing to catch (the inserted image), and here’s why — that was inserted using an engineered tool called Zemanta, a plug-in to Firefox that helps bloggers find images. So, the engineers who made it are the ones who stripped out the attribution. Kind of boils it all down. Nice catch!

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Jul 25, 2011, 10:20 am
      • Really? It’s a funny thing for an illustrator to catch missing attribution online in an article about respecting creatives?

        Thanks for adding the attribution below Kent. I didn’t realize Zemanta worked that way. Kind of a kludgy tool for images if it can’t allow you to correct the source. “Image from Wikipedia” is akin to saying “Image from Google”.

        Posted by Glendon Mellow | Jul 25, 2011, 12:01 pm
    • Czigány, Dezső. Hungarian painter, 1883-1937. Click through the painting for the details.

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Jul 25, 2011, 11:24 am
  2. Wonder what it says about Google that it has over 300 lawyers on staff? I suppose these are among the “adults” also, who are engaged in protecting ground already won rather than contributing to tilling new fertile fields.

    Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Jul 25, 2011, 11:23 am
  3. I think it’s a little unfair to say Google isn’t a company that focuses on design, too. Their recent user interface update is quite beautiful, and the user experience (which, after all, is designed) keeps getting better. I’m betting that we’ll eventually see improved integration of all of their products, something the all-over-the-place Labs didn’t do well.

    It’s also a little simplistic to boil down one company to using data and the other to taking creative leaps of faith. Don’t you think Apple crunches major numbers, too? And have we not all read about the wackiness that happens at Google’s Mountain View campus, nap pods and all? Reading between the lines, I’d say that the biggest difference between the two companies isn’t engineering vs. design. I’d say it’s that Apple has created a figurehead who represents the company, and we buy into their vision of themselves — they’ve flat-out named multiple products “Genius”, for crying out loud. Google’s self-promotion takes a different (and subtler) path and seems to focus on their ideals and projects, rather than their persona. The reverence surrounding Larry and Sergey isn’t nearly as blown up as the aura of Steve “the auteur” Jobs.

    (In writing this comment, it’s interesting to note how deeply I feel about Apple and Google. I use their products on a daily, nay, hourly basis, and that personal investment has probably become emotional as well as practical. Alarming.)

    Posted by Robin Camille | Jul 25, 2011, 2:10 pm
    • I think Google’s design is utilitarian, and quite usable. I actually applaud it, but it’s not an aesthetic accomplishment. As you say, they focus on design, but as an extension of engineering. Apple focuses on engineering as an extension of design.

      I think Apple crunches numbers, too, but they aren’t bound by them. If they had been, the iPod never would have launched, the iPhone never would have launched, and so forth. They’re focused on breakthroughs, not increments.

      It does make one pause to consider how central these two companies have become in a short period of time. You’re not alone.

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Jul 25, 2011, 3:11 pm
  4. Here’s the classic Google example of letting the engineers take over design, as they tested 41 different shades of blue on their site for “performance”:

    http://stopdesign.com/archive/2009/03/20/goodbye-google.html

    But I wonder how much of the bureaucracy that has sprung up in Google is simply a measure of success and growth. Microsoft, at one point, was a lean and hungry company, a streamlined business machine that was extremely efficient. As it grew to becoming a behemoth, layers and layers of management were added to manage the ever-growing number of employees and divisions. Google seems to be going through the same growing pains. Is it possible to have a company over a certain size that doesn’t have at least some level of middle management?

    Apple, however, has been somewhat immune from the same pressures despite their growth. This is perhaps due to their decades spent as an underdog, as a “beleaguered” company about to go out of business. Unlike MS or Google, they haven’t had the same constant pressure from Wall Street to continue to increase their stock price, to constantly come up with the next big hit. Now that Apple is back on top, their way of working is so ingrained in the company that they seem content to ignore the constant pressure from Wall Street in some ways. They remain focused on, as Jobs puts it, creating “really great products” where the other companies are scrambling, throwing everything they can think of up against a wall in hopes of stumbling into another Windows/Office/Search type bonanza.

    Posted by David Crotty | Jul 25, 2011, 4:20 pm
  5. “Back to the drawing board. And that data eventually becomes a crutch for every decision, paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions.”

    I find this an interesting quote for two reasons

    1. I’ve done substantial work with companies to show them what their data is telling them about their business and found that they couldn’t care less. For them, the purpose of data is to prove that the decision that they have already taken is right. If the data does not prove it, the data is deemed to be wrong.

    2. “Data” usually means “numerical facts” or just “facts”. So replace “data” with “facts” in the quote.

    “… facts eventually becomes a crutch for every decision …”
    That seems like a strange criticism.

    Posted by Dave Pullin | Jul 25, 2011, 9:42 pm
    • When it comes to innovation, facts differ from numbers. For instance, a theory of innovation is “jobs-to-be-done.” Clayton Christensen believes a good way to think about products is that consumers will “hire” them to do a specific job.

      In the case of music retailing, for instance, the job to be done has always been to present the listener with as many choices as attractively and conveniently as possible at a reasonable price. Record stores used to do this, then big-box retailers took over in the CD era, then iTunes came along and beat them all, and now Spotify and Last.fm and Pandora are nibbling away at iTunes. But the same job has to be done. This is a fact.

      The numbers/data aspect is different. How many users owned and were passionate about digital music players before the iPod? Very few. If Apple had relied solely on numbers, they would have opted to not develop the iPod. But they depended on inspiration, design, and the leap of faith, along with the facts — not just the numbers.

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Jul 25, 2011, 10:18 pm
  6. Two pieces of data Apple probably took into consideration circa 2000 when they began development of the iPod came from Napster–40 million users and 2+ billion files being shared every month. That’s a lot of consumers with a lot of content looking for good ways to store and play music. Someone at Apple saw both opportunities–create a portable device to transport and play music (not a new idea–the Walkman was already a successful product), and convert even 1% of those 2 billion files being shared at $1 a song and you’ve got a handsome business ($20 million a month).

    Apple is a fantastic, creative company with great design, and launching the iPod with iTunes was indeed visionary and transformative, but the market data were there to support the commercial viability of the vision.

    Posted by Tom Easley | Jul 26, 2011, 3:57 pm
    • Please recall at the time that these same market data were widely interpreted as confirmation that charging for music online was a lost cause — kids didn’t respect copyright, nobody would pay for songs anymore, rip and strip music sharing was the future, and BitTorrent would do the same to video. To see the data differently (or to see the signal and not be distracted by the noise) required a vision that remains rare. Who had it then? Apple. Not Sony. Not BMG. Not Nokia. So, without the vision, the data were just that — data — and they were widely misinterpreted by companies who don’t believe that design and aesthetics can turn even commodities into desirable goods. In a decision-by-committee organization, the visionary and the bureaucrat are barely distinguishable, so leaps of faith are often scuttled by appeals to process, words of caution, and dead-end skepticism. That’s the risk Google is taking by centralizing and formalizing product development.

      Visionaries at Google made AdWords, Earth, Maps, and Android. They saw things others didn’t. Those voices and visions may get drowned out. Already, Google is losing talent just by signaling a cultural shift of this type.

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Jul 26, 2011, 6:12 pm

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