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Gmail offers surprising innovation lessons for the Fortune 500

If you’re familiar with the story of Gmail, you know – for a fact – that it was a 20% time employee project by Paul Buchheit. A little bottom-up experimentation that grew into something big.

Surprise! That story is wrong.

It was a desire by Google, the company, to offer its own email. From Harry McCracken’s great piece How Gmail Happened: The Inside Story of its Launch 10 Years Ago:

Gmail is often given as a shining example of the fruits of Google’s 20 percent time, its legendary policy of allowing engineers to divvy off part of their work hours for personal projects. Paul Buchheit, Gmail’s creator, disabused me of this notion. From the very beginning, “it was an official charge,” he says. “I was supposed to build an email thing.”

Gmail’s creation has more in common with innovation inside large enterprises than it does with the start-up world. Read on if you recognize these:

  1. Job-to-be-done thinking
  2. Reports of the death of company innovation are greatly exaggerated
  3. Corporate antibodies are everywhere
  4. Senior executive support
  5. Big Innovation takes time

Job-to-be-done thinking

Yahoo email screenshot

Image via Variable GHZ, “Why Yahoo Mail is Still an Epic Catastrophe

Anyone remember life before Gmail? We had low storage limits. ‘OK’ search. Poor spam control. Yahoo, one of the dominant players at the time, pursued the freemium strategy that required paying for more storage and better controls. Which isn’t unheard of, mind you.

It’s just…

Think of the core job-to-be-done: When I want to update others, I want to send and receive communications. Some key job tasks that define that job include:

  • Easily send pictures to others
  • Read emails from real people and organizations that I care about
  • Find old emails when I need them
  • Expand my usage of email economically

Yahoo, Hotmail, AOL were fine as far as they went, but they each were challenged on these key job tasks. Back when I had a Yahoo email, I remember the spam being awful and it seemed impossible to control.

Google looked at the offerings in the market, and recognized an opportunity to better satisfy people’s expectations for these important job tasks. Larger size limits, stellar spam control, excellent search and ongoing improvements through Gmail Labs.

Lesson: ABI (Always Be Improving) on the customers’ jobs-to-be-done. Think of the entire job flow and determine which areas are ripe for a better service and experience. Big companies can too easily focus on executing what they have rather than thinking about customers need. 

Reports of the death of company innovation are greatly exaggerated

Image via Family Life Resources

Somewhere along the line, a narrative has emerged that pretty much every big company cannot innovate its way out of a bag. Admittedly, the increasingly rapid turnover of the S&P 500 and the fast rise and decline of companies fuels this narrative. But it’s glib to say companies just don’t do it.

Google’s 20% time is espoused as the antidote to this issue. Middle management stifling innovation? Let everyone experiment on their own. But Gmail wasn’t a 20% time project. It was actually something planned and resourced for development for the organization at large.

This is an important point. If companies set their mind to innovate in an area, people will contribute and provide fantastic ways to get there. Tony Vengrove advised on a key element for success here:  “A compelling vision statement describes what the company wants to become in the future. It not only needs to inspire but ideally it should inform the innovation agenda.”

Lesson: Innovation is not dead inside companies. It does require leadership to set a vision that employees can focus on.  

Corporate antibodies are everywhere

Google is rightly perceived as one of the most innovative companies on the planet. Given that, one might assume that the innovation wheels are well greased there. But I was struck by these quotes from McCracken’s story about the birth of Gmail:

“A lot of people thought it was a very bad idea, from both a product and a strategic standpoint,” says Buchheit of his email project. “The concern was this didn’t have anything to do with web search. Some were also concerned that this would cause other companies such as Microsoft to kill us.”

Within Google, Gmail was also regarded as a huge, improbable deal. It was in the works for nearly three years before it reached consumers; during that time, skeptical Googlers ripped into the concept on multiple grounds, from the technical to the philosophical. It’s not hard to envision an alternate universe in which the effort fell apart along the way, or at least resulted in something a whole lot less interesting.

Inquisitor vs. Corporate AntibodyIn those two quotes, you see critiques that aren’t really about specific elements of Gmail, the concept.

In Four Personality Types that Determine Innovation Success or Failure, a distinction is drawn between Inquisitors, who reflect thoughtfully on issues facing an idea, and Corporate Antibodies, who just want the idea dead. Here are hypothetical responses to Gmail by the two different personality types:

Inquisitor: “Won’t we spook people when they see ads related to the email they’re reading?”

Corporate Antibody: “Email has become a commodity. There are other products we should be building.”

Lesson: Corporate antibodies will always be with us. Recognize legitimate probing for faults versus efforts to undermine the idea in total. Spend time figuring out how to get around Corporate Antibodies, not appeasing them.

Senior Executive Support

Senior executives matter in innovation

In a land of radical transparency and holacracy, the traditional top-level support needed for initiatives is a thing of the past. Alas, we are not in that land. For the 99.9% of people who live with today’s reality, top-down support continues to be the effective way things get done.

It does put pressure on top executives then. They are held accountable by the C-suite, the Board and shareholders. Already in this post, senior executives are called on to ensure innovation moves forward in two different ways.

Set the innovation course: Leadership – be it in business, community, military – has a role in establishing the objectives for people. Indeed, set objectives and get out of the way. In Gmail’s case, Larry Page and Sergey Brin saw a future that extended beyond just search. Paul Buchheit was charged to figure out what a Google email app would look like.

Remove obstacles to innovation: We saw previously that Corporate Antibodies are alive and well. But they didn’t stop Gmail’s progress. From McCracken’s article: “Fortunately, the doubters didn’t include Google’s founders. ‘Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin] were always supportive,’ Buchheit says. ‘A lot of other people were much less supportive.’ “

Lesson: If senior management isn’t paying attention to innovation, it’s a safe bet no one in the company is either. Employees respond to the agenda set by executives. Organic growth comes from a clear focus that involves executives and employees.

Big Innovation takes time

One of my favorite perspectives on innovation comes from Jeff Bezos. In an interview on Harvard Business Review:

ADI IGNATIUS: Jeff, you’ve said that you like to plant seeds that may take seven years to bear fruit. Doesn’t that mean you’ll lose some battles along the way to companies that have a more conventional two or three-year outlook?

JEFF BEZOS: Well, maybe so, but I think some of the things that we have undertaken I think could not be done in two to three years. And so, basically if we needed to see meaningful financial results in two to three years, some of the most meaningful things we’ve done we would never have even started. Things like Kindle, things like Amazon Web Services, Amazon Prime. The list of such things is long at Amazon.

2014 2019Note that he’s referencing Big Innovation. Concepts that are market changers. There are plenty of opportunities for small-ball innovation (or improvements). But for the really big stuff, executives need to back away from the notion that it can be done in one year.

This was seen with Gmail as well. It was in the works for three years before it was launched to consumers. Continual effort was applied to the product features, the user experience, the business model and the infrastructure to support it. During this time, the project was assailed internally, but as noted previously, senior management supported its ongoing development. Similar to the way Bezos sticks with groundbreaking projects for the long term.

Lesson: Senior management must recognize the magnitude of the innovation it seeks and commit the right time horizon, resources and support to it. This applies for small ball innovation and Big Innovation.

Google, of course is now a HUGE company, on par with the biggest in the world. Its Gmail experience provides valuable lessons for Fortune 500 firms seeking to innovate.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter, and I’m a Senior Consultant with HYPE Innovation.

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Is Google+ More Facebook or More Twitter? Yes

Quick, what existing social network is Google+ most likely to displace in terms of people’s time?

Another Try by Google to Take On Facebook

Claire Cain Miller, New York Times

This isn’t a Facebook-killer, it’s a Twitter-killer.

Yishan Wong, Google+ post

A hearty congrats to Google for creating an offering that manages to be compared to both Facebook and Twitter. The initial press focused on Google+ as a Facebook competitor. But as people have gotten to play with it, more and more they are realizing that it’s just as much a Twitter competitor.

I wanted to understand how that’s possible. How is it Google+ competes with both of those services? To do so, I plotted Google+’s features against comparable features in both Facebook and Twitter. The objective was to understand:

  • Why are people thinking of Google+ as competitor to both existing social networks?
  • How did the Google team make use of the best of both services?

The chart below is shows where Google+ is more like Facebook or Twitter. The red check marks () and gray shading highlight which service a Google+ feature is more like.

A few notes about the chart.

Circles for tracking: Twitter has a very comparable feature with its Lists. Facebook also lets you put connections into lists; I know because I’ve put connections into lists (e.g. Family, High School, etc.). But I had a hard time figuring out where those lists are. in the Facebook UI. Seriously, where are they for accessing? They may be available somewhere, but it’s not readily accessible. So I didn’t consider Facebook as offering this as a core experience.

+1 voting on posts: Both Google+ and Facebook allow up votes on people’s posts.Twitter has the ‘favorite’ feature. Which is sort of like up voting. But not really. It’s not visible to others, and it’s more a bookmarking feature.

Posts in web search results: Google+ posts, the public ones, show up in Google search results. Not surprising there. Tweets do as well. Facebook posts for the most part do not. I understand some posts on public pages can. But the vast majority of Wall posts never show up in web search results.

Google+ One-Way Following Defines Its Experience

When you look at the chart above, on a strict feature count, Google+ is more like Facebook. It’s got comment threading, video chat,  inline media, and limited sharing.

But for me, the core defining design of Google+ is the one-way following. I can follow anyone on Google+. They may not follow back (er…put me in a circle), but I can see their public posts. This one-way following is what makes the experience more like Twitter for me. Knowing your public posts are out there for anyone to find and read is both boon and caution. For instance, I’ll post pics of my kids on Facebook, because I know who can see those pics – the people I’ve connected with. I don’t tend to post their pics on Twitter. Call me an old fashioned protective parent.

That’s my initial impression. Now as Google+ circles gain ground in terms of usage, they will become the Facebook equivalent of two-way following. Things like sharing and +mentions are issues that are hazy to me right now. Can someone reshare my “circle-only” post to others outside my circle? Do I have to turn off reshare every time? Does +mentioning someone outside my circle make them aware of the post?

Google has created quite a powerful platform here. While most features are not new innovations per se, Google+ benefits from the experience of both Twitter and Facebook. They’re off to a good start.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter.

Three Reasons Google Should Acquire Delicious from Yahoo

So the news is out. Yahoo plans to shutter Delicious, the largest social bookmarking site. Which is shocking, particularly among the tech savvy and socially oriented. Delicious is iconic for its application of social sharing and collective intelligence. Hard to believe Yahoo wants to shut it down.

But wait…this doesn’t have to be the end. Why not seek alternatives to shutting down the service? Might there be a logical company to take on Delicious, and all the value it holds? Why yes, one company comes to mind.

Google.

Delicious fits Google’s mission

Hmmm…what is it Google wants to do? What defines their corporate philosophy? Ah yes, here’s Google’s mission:


“Organize the world’s information.” Now, doesn’t that sound like the kind of thing that applies to Delicious? Millions of people organizing the world’s information, according to their own tags. Which makes it easier to find for others. Crowdsourced curation.

For that reason alone, Google would be wise to take on Delicious.

Glean new insights about what people value

Google’s pagerank is amazing. It’s incredibly good at finding nuggets. But it’s not perfect, as anyone who regularly use it knows. The use of links is powerful, but is a limited basis for identifying valuable web pages.

What people elect to bookmark is a different sort of valuation. Which is important, because not everyone blogs, or creates web pages with links to their favorite sites. But there is a distributed effort of indicating value via bookmarking.

This activity would be a valuable addition to Google’s search results. Take a look at this thread on Hacker News (a bunch of tech savvy types) about Delicious:

I added that highlighting. And here’s what Michael Arrington said when Yahoo experimented with adding Delicious bookmarks to its search results:

I have previously written that Delicious search is one of the best ways of searching for things when a standard search doesn’t pull up what you are looking for. After Google, it is my favorite “search engine.” Adding this information into Yahoo search is a great idea.

Google could leverage the activity of Delicious users to improve its search results, or at least give users an additional place to find content. Mine the tags to provide more context and connections among pages.

Note that Google, and Bing, are exploring different ways to apply social signals from Twitter and Facebook. Inclusion of Delicious in the search process would be consistent with that.

And Google would still benefit from its Adwords program here. Which would be a monetization strategy for Delicious, which has no ads.

Great PR move with the tech community

Google finds itself in a fight with Facebook for employees. Google is public, Facebook is pre-IPO. Social is hot, and Facebook is dominant in that. Google isn’t.

But as Allen Stern notes, Google does have a special appeal to the tech crowd for its developer-friendly moves. Stepping in and taking over a legendary Web 2.0 site like Delicious would be a good fit with that reputation. Enhance the usage of the data and make it easy for developers to access.

More importantly, Delicious holds a special appeal among the geekier set. Many of us are still active bookmarkers, and use the service. Google is known for being a geek-centric paradise, with a bunch of high-GPA, advanced degree types on its campuses.

What do you think it costs to run Delicious “as is”? I’d hazard a guess that it’s not too much. And Google is throwing off some serious cash ($10 billion in last 12 months):

So they do have some capacity, but obviously need to invest it wisely.

For a relatively low cost, they gain a treasure trove of data on relevance and value, and a solid boost to their PR. Seems like a big win to me. How about it Google? Why not step in and take over Delicious?

Apple iPad and Google Buzz: Harsh Reality of Innovation

Nothing like putting your heart and soul in an innovation, and then getting this:

Man, tough audience. But very much in keeping with some the best advice on innovation. Which is, you can’t have innovation without some failure along the way. It’s inevitable.

That advice is both true, and glib. Innovation consultant Jeffrey Phillips catches the right spirit when he says:

Another thing about “failure” is that we try to kid ourselves that failure is a “good thing” a learning opportunity.  Well, not in most cultures.

This is the reality of innovation. It’s tough. The more disruptive an innovation, the tougher it gets. And we’re in the middle of seeing how it plays right now with Apple iPad and Google Buzz.

Let me ask you this: Do you personally think either the iPad or Buzz will be guaranteed successes for their respective companies? Be honest now.

My guess is you’re like most of us: I don’t know.

Well, truth be known, neither do Apple and Google. But they’ve got a history you’d bet on.

Apple and Google: Big Time Failures, Big Time Innovations

Both Apple and Google have had their share of duds in the market:

Obviously, these companies do not have a perfect record of successful innovations.

But they do have a record of pressing through failures and continuing to roll out innovations. In fact, they’re consistently ranked the best in the world:

It pays to stick-to-it in trying out innovations. But can everyone?

Does Your Company Really Want Radical Innovation?

In Psychology Today, a professor at the University of Michigan gets to the issue:

From vaccines to Velcro, many inventions were spawned from accidents, seeming failures. But when Fiona Lee, psychology and business professor at the University of Michigan, explored which conditions help people experiment with novel ideas, she uncovered an interesting phenomenon: “Managers talk a lot about innovation and being on the cutting edge, but on an individual level, many people are not willing to try new things.”

What’s holding us back? A fear of failure.

Think about your own reaction to the question of whether the iPad and Google Buzz will be successful. It’s easy enough to be uncertain as an observer. But imagine if you have to put shareholder capital in to it, affect your brand in the market and risk some career trajectories?

I will often read of the importance of taking risks and accepting some level of failure for companies to be innovative. This is very true. But it can be glib to summarily dismiss companies for not “getting it”. When they’re made up of people like you and me who possess ordinary…well, human characteristics.

Because how do you know when you’re iterating toward a true high-value innovation, or you’re just spinning your wheels? I’ll turn again to Jeffrey Phillips:

As Edison and countless others have demonstrated, you rarely get it right the first time, and if you are stymied by early failure, then you’ll never find and implement the best ideas.  Innovation, as has been pointed out by individuals with far more to say about it than me, will create some failures.  Your job isn’t to avoid the failures, since you can’t predict them in advance, but to reduce the cost and impact of the inevitable failures.  In other words, keep moving.

As I said before, I can’t know for sure whether the Apple iPad or Google Buzz will be successful. But kudos to those companies for rolling out innovations that might fail. And in case you’re wondering whether allowing employees some latitude to fail is worth it, check out the 5-year stock performance of Apple and Google versus the S&P 500:

Let’s take this one out with the great speech from Teddy Roosevelt:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Indeed.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter.

My Ten Favorite Tweets – Week Ending 011510

From the home office at 11:35 pm weeknights, where I’ll be sitting in the Tonight Show chair after the Winter Olympics…

#1: Defining Social Business http://bit.ly/6pfbpy by @stoweboyd #e20

#2: RT @time Foursquare’s Twist on Facebook: A Reward for Checking In – TIME http://tinyurl.com/yce6jld

#3: One thing we’ll see more in next 20 years: online reputations. Not just businesses, but people. Formalized and applied to web experience.

#4: Technology Review: How Google Ranks Tweets #reputation http://post.ly/IRl1

#5: RT @HelenWalters “Innovation is killed with the two deadliest words in business: Prove it.” @rotmanschool‘s Roger Martin: http://bit.ly/862a3t

#6: RT @VenessaMiemis What is Design Thinking, Really? http://bit.ly/6fpmOZ #metathink #designthinking #innovation > Detailed post

#7: Reading ‘Design Driven Innovation’ by Verganti. Quote: “Design should anticipate a need, proposing a vision.” #innovation

#8: RT @GeorgeDearing Best Headline Ever. [ryankuder's posterous] http://ff.im/-eaux4 > Funny WaPo headline writers #starwars

#9: This wasn’t too predictable, eh? “What Boyfriends and Girlfriends Search for on Google” http://bit.ly/7orLZv

#10: Ethics of test preparations–for kindergarten http://bit.ly/6TG7Co > Man, I missed out on this for my 5 1/2 son!

My Ten Favorite Tweets – Week Ending 010810

From the home office in Sacramento, where Governor Schwarzenegger laid out an initial budget that will take 11 months to resolve and pass…go ahead and get your California jokes ready now…

#1: If this topic interests you – Designing for Innovation through Competitive Collaboration – I ask for your #e2conf vote http://bit.ly/8xuQuC

#2: The Wisdom of Crowds Like Me http://bit.ly/4WM1Bi #crowdsourcing

#3: How Do Product Managers Reject Bad Ideas? http://bit.ly/7j6Ax0 by @chriscummings01 #innovation

#4: Jessica Hagy: The Visual Grammar of Ideas :: Articles :: The 99 Percent #innovation http://post.ly/HcJL

#5: Should you be thinking about Enterprise 2.0 in 2010? http://cli.gs/th9me by @dahowlett > A rare, rare bit of optimism there #e20

#6: MITRE’s intranet, including its Spigit deployment, is named to Jakob Nielsen’s Top 10 Intranets for 2010: http://bit.ly/5jrgJY #e20

#7: RT @dhinchcliffe The K-factor Lesson: How Social Ecosystems Grow (Or Not) http://bit.ly/8aEQEQ

#8: RT @paujoral Great quote by @wimrampen: “the name of the (social networking) game is how to participate in knowledge flows”

#9: Just had to use the “Let Me Google That for You” site for a colleague: http://lmgtfy.com/

#10: This is both funny and so true: Effect of Bay Area earthquakes on Twitter traffic http://twitpic.com/x3c10 (h/t @louisgray)

Three Designs for Presenting Tweets in Search Results

In a recent post, I described some ways in which tweets should be ranked in search results. A good follow-on question is

How should tweets be presented in search results?

It’s an interesting question – how exactly would you want to see tweets in your Google and Bing search results? And it’s an important question, as searches are critical bases for discovering information and huge drivers of traffic.

Tweets are different from web pages. They are more ephemeral, but also much more current. They’re short nature means we can consume them much more quickly than fuller web pages. In many ways, their brevity reduces their “burden of interestingness”. Read, move on. Read, move on. Read, move on.

Tweets are small nuggets of insight, and pointers to good content. Web pages are the foundational information components. The value of the two digital forms is different. Thus, it makes sense to consider options for presenting these different types of information to people.

Three different designs for presenting tweets in Google and Bing search results come to mind:

  • Separate tweets-only search page
  • Tweets displayed in a box on the same page with web pages
  • Tweets integrated into the overall search results

Let’s take a look at the options. For added context, I’ve included appropriate musical selections.

At the bottom of this post, I’ve set up a poll asking which approach you’d prefer.

Tweets-only search results

Musical theme: Gotta keep ‘em separated.

This is the Bing way. A separate URL for tweets. It’s an acknowledgment that tweets really are different from web pages. The graphic below conceptualizes this approach, with a search on ‘Madrid':

The graphic above puts tweets searches more in line with overall searches. Right now Bing has no link to tweet searches on its home page. You just have to know the URL exists. Of course, the Microsoft Bing team is working on incorporating the firehose into its search experience, so that may change.

Positives

  • Dedicated page allows for much more creativity with presenting tweets, as Bing has shown
  • Visible link/tab keeps tweet searches more in-the-flow of searchers’ actions
  • Users could easily toggle between the tabs for different types of information
  • Minimizes risk of disruption to current “golden egg” of web searches

Negatives

  • Forces an extra step to see potentially relevant information – click the tweets tab
  • Somewhat diminishes the awareness of tweets’ real-time, up-to-date nature by using same tab structure applied to more static web pages

Tweets in same-page box

Musical theme: Man in the box.

The presentation of real-time tweets on the same page is something Google is experimenting with currently. The philosophy here is that you’re looking for multiple types of information in a search. Google already displays web page links, images, YouTube videos, maps, PDFs and other types of content. Tweets are just another type of content.

Something I’d like to see is a separate box of the tweets on the search results page, as shown below:

This design effectively distinguishes tweets from other types of content, while preserving the “all information on one page” philosophy. This is important for Google and Bing advertising, making the search results page even more engaging.

Open question: what’s better for ad click volumes? Multiple pages of different content (e.g. separate tabs described previously)? Or a single page with more engaging content?

Aside from the information aspect of tweets, there is also a people aspect. Tweets are as much about the person as they are the content. The separate presentation of tweets distinguishes them from web pages, PDFs, videos and the like.

Positives

  • Relevant, up-to-date content improves value of searches
  • In-the-flow of existing search behavior
  • Real-time nature is engaging
  • Find people as well as content

Negatives

  • Smaller space constrains presentation options
  • Potential for a too-crowded visual presentation

Because of the volume of searches run through Google and Bing, there will be a premium on ensuring the quality of the tweets presented. This is important regardless, but even more so here with the number of times people will see the tweets. See How Should Tweets Be Ranked in Search Engine Results? for thoughts on how to do this.

Tweets integrated with overall search results

Musical theme: Happy Together

There is a third design option. Why not put the tweets right in the mix of overall search results? Treat them less as exotic new forms of content, and more as just another type for searchers to click on. The graphic below conceptualizes this:

A tweet is just another URL that can point searchers to relevant content. The challenge is that Google and Bing need to alter their ranking algorithms to allow tweets to be served up high in search results. Something like a pagerank for the twitter account itself. If it has relevant content and a high “Twitter pagerank”, it gets served up higher in the search results.

Positives

  • Searchers get tweets in a highly familiar way
  • Minimizes risk of disruption to current “golden egg” of web searches

Negatives

  • Undermines the fresh, up-to-date nature of tweets
  • Will limit presentation of relevant tweets due to inadequate “Twitter pagerank”
  • Reduces the people aspect of the tweets
  • Lack of real-time flow diminishes engagement of the results page

Of course, tweets are served up in search results today. But that generally happens with very specific multi-word searches that match the tweet, or including the word “twitter” in the search. The design above brings tweets more fully into the pantheon of content, displaying them highly in search results for basic keywords.

I imagine smart folks can come up with other designs for displaying tweets. Leave a comment on these three or any other designs you think might be interesting.

Also, take a second and vote in the poll below. I’m curious what people think about the different possibilities for displaying tweets.

Thanks.

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