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.
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.
Hypothesis: if ever a VP of something is created, say a VP of quality or a VP of sarcasm, it means two things:
- The company is failing at that activity.
- 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?